Sure, anyone with an ounce of ambition could make a half-baked bid for a leadership position – even if it’s just a pipe dream. And true enough, a lot of these hypothetical candidates might well have a case. But this little-known secret is about to blow the model of CEOs wide open: it all lies in customer success.

If you haven’t come across this position before, you can be forgiven; Customer Success Managers (CSMs) are still a fairly new role in businesses, sculpted out of SaaS (software as a service) and bearing some similarities to customer service and support management. That being said, it’s a unique, blossoming, human-focused industry dedicated to putting customers’ goals first.

The arranged marriage of authority and revenue as the deciding factors for leadership positions is arguably an antiquated one. With more companies realizing the advantages of hiring customer success teams, there is, in turn, a greater awareness surrounding the necessity to have a proactive relationship with the customer, rather than a reactive one. This shift in attitude is an extremely significant development in the way businesses tackle ‘lost’ customers to churn, and how they improve their product or service.

interpersonal skills

Due to the nature of their work, CSMs, Heads of Customer Success and Chief Customer Officers possess a very specific set of skills. These skills range from proactivity, the ability to listen to others and empathize, clarity of communication, a strategic mindset and, ultimately, the capacity to see the bigger picture.

In this article, we’re going to examine the skills that Customer Success Managers have, and why they starkly align with the traits of a well-appointed CEO. We’re going to dive in and digest why customer success lends itself perfectly to C-suite roles and in particular, the top job itself.

Customer Success Managers know how to communicate

One massive factor contributing to the success of CS is communication itself.

The benefits of effective communication can dramatically strengthen relationships. Clarity of communication can provide direction and resolution to problems, engagement and strong relationships. In terms of business, when filtered down from the top level, clear communication can be inextricably linked to growth and innovation by way of building a stable, strong rapport with internal and external stakeholders.

Strong communication skills is something that encompasses all aspects of customer success. The argument could be made that communication is the umbrella that all other skill sets fall under. Without clear communication, the relationship between customer and organization becomes fractious.

Customer Success Managers deal with conflict

Unfortunately, conflict is an inevitable component of business, and most will deal with it regularly. At the core of their role, Customer Success Managers strive to help the customer achieve their goal with the respective service or product. Conflict and conversations enable change and take businesses where they need to be.

Of course, maintaining a consistent relationship with all customers is imperative, and each prospect must be treated fairly. A large part of customer success involves the management of expectations between your customer and your company. It isn’t possible to say ‘yes’ to everyone in your customer base (unless you’re an account manager). In promising every customer everything, you risk alienating another part of your client base.

For example, Customer A might ask for X but it isn’t always possible to apply the same to Customer B. By not fulfilling your initial promise to Customer B, you may let them down, potentially causing damage to your brand. Managing realistic expectations from the start is a proactive way to avoid harm to the customer and business. It's a potent way in which CSMs exhibit diplomacy, a characteristic critical to successful CEOs.

We don’t live in a perfect world; you’ll encounter people with different and, perhaps, strong personalities. However, CSMs need to consistently demonstrate their ability to work with these colorful personalities. Occasionally, internal conflicts of opinion can present themselves in business and those who work in customer success might also have to resolve conflict within their own organization. It’s not always a negative experience, as you can learn more about your business’ goals and internal mechanisms through communicating effectively with others.

Managing expectations and working with different teams within the company is a key aspect of customer success and demonstrates excellent people skills.

Customer Success Managers are strategic

Success isn’t something your business stumbles into and it doesn’t happen accidentally.

Customer success requires strategy and your product or service needs to serve the customer’s ambitions. For whatever reason they initially bought or subscribed to your product or service, they need to be able to fulfill their goals with it and it’s imperative their customer needs are met.

Understanding this logic is critical to ensuring your own success; when others succeed first, you will succeed. We spoke to Brian Nicholls, VP of Customer Success at UserIQ, who illustrated this point perfectly:  

"As a CSM, when you set your customer up to succeed, it will translate into success for you personally and then your organization. As CEO, if you set your team up to succeed, you and the organization you lead will succeed."

As Brian brilliantly surmises: if the customer isn’t succeeding, neither are you!

To those unfamiliar with the industry, ‘customer success’ might seem like jargon, with a lot of companies jumping on the bandwagon. Disappointingly, a few organizations are merely signaling ‘customer success’, but not in fact implementing it. It’s a disservice to everyone when you only invoke a façade of CS. Recognizing the necessity to make your business genuinely customer-centric is one of the most significant steps you can make, and exhibiting a solid example of CEO material.

In the pivotal book, Customer Success: How Innovative Companies Are Reducing Churn and Growing Recurring Revenue, Nick Mehta, Dan Steinman and Lincoln Murphy discuss a paradigm shift they align with the growth of the SaaS industry.

The rise of subscription-based models is identified as a pivotal change in power from B2B transactions, ‘from the vendor to the customer’ (Mehta, Steinman & Murphy, 18). This shift is prescribed to the logistics of technology being sold as a service (SaaS), since the customer can terminate their contract whenever they desire, and their monthly or annual payments will cease accordingly.

"The customer no longer has to buy the hardware or software, set up and run data centers, or hire expensive people to manage all of it. They simply lease the whole package from the vendor.’ (Mehta, Steinman & Murphy, 18)"

The reason why companies like Netflix, Spotify and Amazon Prime are three of the largest corporations in the world can be separated from their SaaS status. When boiled down, they communicate with their customers on an ongoing basis, listening to the customers’ user behaviors. These are just a few examples of how companies adopt strong customer success strategies and implement metrics like churn and CLV to aid retention.

Customer-centricity is by no means a new concept, it has always had its place in business. The difference is that there are now specific roles (CSMs) that manifest the customer as a priority in a proactive, clear way.

It’s for these reasons that roles have been carved out for CSMs, Heads of Customer Success and Chief Customer Officers, refocusing an organization to their customer strategy. These CS roles achieve this on an internal scale by encouraging teammates to incorporate customer-focused strategies and objectives into their daily work.

For customer success to fully work, it needs to be adopted on a company-wide level, becoming a part of the everyday culture. Customer Success Managers understand many aspects of business. They know how it ticks and how each area operates. In fact, their familiarity with the organization gives them the insight to what other departments need to succeed.

Maybe they’re omniscient? Who knows. But the one thing we’re certain of is it’s definitely a pretty strong quality for leadership.


Customer Success Managers see the bigger picture

Customer Success Managers know the value that customers can bring to the company in order to promote short and long-term growth. They can see beyond the immediate, and can use their strategic mindset to enforce long-term initiatives. We spoke to Jung Kim, VP of Customer Success at NeuroFlow about what she considers to be the most significant aspect of CSMs repertoire. For Jung, that quality is vision:

"As CSMs, we thrive on the ability to be both strategic and tactical. Knowing the details required to operationalize allows the empowerment to employ strategy to progress the business forward. [It] allows for some of the creativity and holistic group energy required to move progress forward."

A great Customer Success Manager is proactive – they will action their vision. They will be able to see what their customers and their organization needs and have the foresight to actualize these ideas over a period of time.

Now what?

Go forth, spread your wings and become CEOs!

Hopefully, this article has shed some light on how the evolving industry of customer success employs people who, by definition, are proactive and strategically-minded.

Businesses are gradually realizing that implementing a genuine customer-centric model actually reaps enormous benefits in the long run. The more you ask yourself, 'what makes a great CSM?', the more you realize that they share the exact qualities sought after in a great CEO.

Once the dots are drawn, Customer Success Managers are not only put on the map, but on the pathway for the top job itself! They possess exactly what is needed to make a modern business thrive, harmonizing customer and organization.