At Customer Success Collective, we love hearing from Customer Success Managers. In fact, we’re obsessed with them and the work they do; our small contribution is to create a hub of educational resources for global CS enthusiasts.

And while we might be a little biased (oh, just by a smidge 😉), we think that CSMs have some of the best attributes going in business. If that wasn’t enough, we’ve previously taken a deep dive into why CSMs have all the best qualities sought in a well-appointed CEO, and why businesses really need to wake up and open up the C-suite roles to customer success.

In this article, we’re going to:

Always curious to decipher what makes up the very fabric of a CSM, we put some questions to Mark Higginson ahead of his presentation at October 2021's virtual Customer Success Festival.

Mark’s the Executive Vice President (EVP) of Customer and Partner Success, at a new tech startup, SixFifty, and his presentation, "Why sales skills should be part of the CS toolkit," attempts to redefine the "dirty" or "cutthroat" connotations sales harbors in the world of customer success.

Mark not only provides a key insight into streamlining the customer journey through interdepartmental collaboration but also into how to find your next great hire. So what makes a great CSM?

Let’s begin.

What is a Customer Success Manager?

The customer success function hasn’t been around for long, following the upward trajectory of the SaaS industry over the last twenty years. Between 1996 and 1997, the CRM company, Vantive, implemented a customer success team to ensure their customers' needs were being met.

A Customer Success Manager (CSM) is a role within a company’s customer success department that’s responsible for ensuring the customers find value in their product and/or service, generate adoption, and fundamentally, help them achieve their goals with the product.

A CSM is the customer’s point of contact in the post-sales process. Their role is to monitor the customer’s activity, from which they can determine how successful their product is and what can be altered. These insights are used by the CSM to theoretically prevent the customer from churning.

If your organization follows the SaaS model, ensuring your customers are happy is tantamount to your success. The customer needs to use your service and find value in it, which hopefully leads to renewal. This is true in two senses:

  1. Continued subscription (retention) equates to the product’s economic success
  2. A high customer satisfaction rate is indicative of market authority and a positive reputation

But what do the industry leaders think? Sometimes it’s worth stripping things back, and begin asking why customer success works.

We asked Mark Higginson what customer success means to him and what he defines a CSM by. For Mark, customer success should be at the heart of an organization, the "hub" if you will. CS is central to propelling growth, in both the economic and popular sense of the word. Done right, customer success drives revenue growth and escalates a company’s reputation as a market leader.

“A Customer Success Manager (CSM) acts as both the eyes and ears for the customer, as well as the company.”

Mark touches on the dual nature of customer success; it’s all about helping customers find value in a product and monitoring the health of the company. He recognizes CSMs as the “facilitators of feedback, the hunters of new customer goals, and the friend the client needs when things aren't going well.” Customer Success Managers are the lifeblood and the lifeline of a business.

But what actually defines a CSM? We put this fundamental question to Mark:

“A CSM is 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.”

What attributes make a good CSM great?

Being adaptable and empathetic aren’t just key characteristics of a good CSM, they’re non-negotiable.

In our 2021 report, the State of Customer Success, we discovered that humane characteristics like communication (88%) and listening (71%) are prerequisites to a prosperous career in CS.

When people refer to being ‘well-rounded’, they usually mean that a person has a range of different skill sets and knowledge that enables them to be more relatable to others. As well as being a good communicator, CSMs need to be methodical and anticipative, and this is something you need to have under your belt to be a good CSM. If you aren’t personable, able to listen and problem-solve, chances are that customer success might not be the industry for you.

We put this question to Mark and asked what qualities he seeks when hiring CSMs. The results? Three very achievable attributes:

1. Be at the helm of decisions

“Someone who takes personally the success of a client. This is an attitude, a very personal attitude. I want my CSMs to leverage the company and its capabilities to steer the client towards helping them solve their intended goals. When those capabilities fail, I empower my CSMs to take any and all steps to remedy the situation. This includes direct connections to the C-level if necessary.”

2. They must be bold

“Similar to taking client success personally, they must be willing to challenge the company and challenge the client, not in a negative sense, but a bold CSM can drive adoption, innovation, and drive remedy, where someone who lacks boldness may fall short.”

3. Sales ability

“This may seem out of place, but when I speak of sales, I speak of the ability to help others connect the dots. Sales, in my opinion, is the ability to connect a client's goal with your company's capability and creatively lead a client through the confusion that may arise when faced with challenges. Sales, in this case, is to act as a guide, to lead the client to a place where their goals can be met with your trusted offering.”

If you missed Mark’s presentation at the Customer Success Festival, then you're in luck – you can become a member and access hundreds of hours of recordings of our past events. 🎟️

How do career backgrounds impact the CSM role?

Without getting ourselves into a philosophical debate, there are some universal truths that are pretty inescapable, like your past influencing your present. And when you look at professional industries, it’s pretty interesting to study the career backgrounds of people to gauge what skillsets they bring to their current role.

Due to customer success being a relatively new function, we’re intrigued by how CSMs and VPs/Heads of Customer Success landed their current roles.

After analyzing the answers from 200 respondents working within CS, the State of Customer Success 2021 report identified several findings. Firstly, the most common previous field was Account Management (AM). This isn’t surprising, as there are a lot of historical similarities between CSMs and AMs. However, this majority only encompassed a slight figure of 16.8%. And in truth, it can’t properly be called a ‘majority’. But, this figure does exemplify the myriad of skills and experiences that our customer success leaders have between them.

Other examples of other past careers undertaken by the report’s respondents included: Business Analyst, Product Manager, Project Manager, Customer Support, Customer Service, Growth Manager, and consultancy work.

Clearly, the experiences of customer success pros in 2021 represent a variety of positions within business. In fact, Business degrees were the most common college degree for CSMs and CS leaders, and Marketing came second place.

Different professional backgrounds of CSMs
Source: The State of Customer Success 2021

Using data from our report, we’ve covered that nearly one-third of CS professionals studied Business at college, and believe empathetic skills like communication (88%) and listening (71%) are essential parts of their job. A business degree is a great way of gaining a vast number of transferable skills required by most businesses, like entrepreneurship, finance, management, and accounting, helping shape a person’s analytical capabilities.

We can tell from our report’s findings that people in CS have a combination of both interpersonal and analytical skills, allowing them to understand and listen to customers’ needs, deliver impactful solutions and use data to implement a strong customer success strategy.

We asked Mark whether he thinks career backgrounds can impact the CSM role, particularly people coming from a non-SaaS background. His response was not only encouraging for non-SaaS professionals trying to break into the industry, but he emphasized how critical variety is to customer success:

When asked who he’s previously hired, Mark reveals an eclectic mix of all sorts of professions, having “hired former salespeople, social workers, high school teachers, musicians, and many more.” Despite customer success predominantly functioning in SaaS, he affirmed that ‘none of these individuals have been negatively impacted by not having a SaaS background.”

Each one of these individuals will bring a unique background and an individual skillset. On the subject of different professional backgrounds, Mark has some sage words:

“There are some challenges that are universal, regardless of industry, but what continues to amaze me is that if you can find individuals who are talented, intelligent, and truly care, they can thrive in a customer success role. The nuances of SaaS can be learned. The intangibles of boldness, "taking it personally", and the ability to guide (sell), are more difficult to teach.”

How can interdepartmental skills elevate the CSM role?

At Customer Success Collective, we’re big on learning from other teams and are firm believers that without communication and a fresh perspective, your efforts can become stagnant.

Customer retention is the overarching goal of any organization – whether it’s a subscription-based business with an emphasis on renewals or a non-SaaS model that requires customers to repeat their purchases. Losing customers shouldn’t fall solely on CS’ shoulders, it’s a company-wide initiative. This is why departments manning the different stages in the customer journey ought to collaborate. In fact, we’ve previously appraised the trifecta of marketing, sales and customer success, and why it’s crucial that all three teams are aligned.

Why you should align customer success, marketing and sales
Customer success is preoccupied with nurturing its current customers, rather than seeking out new customers. While being distinct with different objectives, there is an intersection between customer success, marketing and sales: they’re all customer-centric fields.

Customer success is still a developing function that will continue to evolve from its current version. There’s a lot to learn from other teams – like product, marketing and sales – by adopting clear communication, learning, and sharing skill sets.

Mark’s presentation, ‘Why sales skills should be part of the CS toolkit’, focuses specifically on how sales skills can elevate the CSM role. Sales teams have a reputation for being slick and fast-talking, willing to say anything to make a quick buck – the antithesis of CS. But for Mark, this couldn’t be further from the truth, noting that some of the best CSMs he’s hired have come from sales backgrounds.

To avoid any prejudices regarding sales techniques, Mark lays bare the actual skillsets of salespeople:

“Sales skills are really just the ability to connect the dots for a client. They have a need (the goal), we have a capability, (the product). Selling is the ability for someone to connect these dots and guide an individual down the path of purchasing, in hopes they will use our capabilities to solve this problem or meet their goal.”

However, he notes that this is an unfulfilling prospect for some.

“Many salespeople enjoy the quick win, the hit of dopamine when they close a deal, but others find this distressing and unfulfilling. They have developed a great relationship with a client and are now turning it over to someone else in search of their next conquest. Many want more.”

Connecting these dots isn’t the problem for salespeople, Mark comments. What can be difficult is grappling with the void in the wake of the sales process: “They are great at helping guide a client to a solution, but what these individuals are lacking is the long-term relationships that can be formed.”

This is where the glory of customer success shines through, a function that Mark considers to “help their client see something through to the end, to be there when new challenges or goals surface.” Having this after-sales experience is vital for some salespeople.

“This is where customer success can save some of these disillusioned sales souls and turn them around completely. I have seen individuals become reinvigorated after they were on the brink of quitting.”

Helping facilitate customer relationships beyond the point of sale, beyond that climactic thrill, can act as a new vocation for salespeople. They are “important to the company and important to the client in perpetuity. Their skills can be leveraged continually as new challenges arise or budgets are discussed.”

The significance of customer success in a SaaS business is indisputable. According to Esteban Kolsky, 67% of customer churn is preventable if the customer issue was successfully resolved at the first engagement and if the company worked better to meet the customer’s expectations. Salespeople have experience in setting goals and expectations and nurturing customer relationships – prerequisites to work in customer success.

Let’s wrap up

To go from being a good CSM to a great one, you need to be empathetic, a facilitator of feedback, a strong communicator, and show ownership of your work. Helping a customer reach their goal is now a mantle you personally carry.

We’ve quashed any concerns about breaking into customer success with a non-SaaS background – it isn’t an issue at all. In this article, we’ve covered that having an entirely different career only adds to the wealth of transferable skills you’ll impart to your new life in customer success.

Mark Higginson is a CS enthusiast and is an advocate of integrating sales skills into customer success. If we’ve piqued your interest, then Mark’s presentation at the Customer Success Festival will quench your thirst for how sales skills can elevate the CSM role.

At the end of Mark’s talk, we opened up the floor for a Q&A session, where our audience had the opportunity to ask Mark a question about sales in customer success.

So what are you waiting for? With a membership plan, you automatically get access to hundreds of hours of footage of our past events. 😎

5 reasons to attend the Customer Success Festival
We’re entering the final countdown of days until our third Customer Success Festival, and we’re pretty darn excited to have you all tune in. This is by no means a definitive list, but here are just 5 reasons why you should attend the Customer Success Festival 3.0.

Are you looking for a place where you can connect and collaborate solely with other customer success folks? Then you’re in luck.

Join our thriving community where you can access content, view jobs, ask questions, and learn about customer success.