In the State of Customer Success report 2021, we dissected the customer success model in terms of its functionality, how it’s measured, and the way it co-exists within the infrastructure of a modern business. But what is it actually like for a person to work in customer success?

In this article, we’re going to look at:

Let’s dig in. 🥄

The State of Customer Success 2021
The time has come and your patience can finally be rewarded. Without further ado, here it is: the State of Customer Success 2021.

The skills required to work in customer success

It’s all well and good asking our survey respondents to describe their most-used metrics, who they report to, or what their previous non-CS role was. But it actually doesn’t complete the picture of the state of customer success in 2021.

In our survey, we asked our respondents what they believe is the most valuable skill to succeed in a customer success career. Customer success is cross-functional and requires a multitude of skills and natural behaviors to work closely alongside customers and other teams, which is why it isn’t surprising that a whopping 87.9% of customer success pros regarded communication as the most important skill to have.

Being able to navigate curveballs is another crucial skill to hone, especially when it comes to issues with churn rate or hiccups in a customer’s onboarding. When put to our participants, 71.4% of them said that having the ability to solve problems is an absolute must when working in customer success. The results of our survey show that humane characteristics are prerequisites to a prosperous career in customer success.

Our participants credited customer success professionals to have the ability to listen (70.9%) as a key skill, along with being able to build meaningful relationships with customers (70.9%), with empathy (67.8%), strategic thinking (63.3%), organizational skills (59.3%), relational intelligence (52.3%), confidence (48.2%), analytical skills (47.7%), resilience (37.2%), assertiveness (25.1%) data integration (21.6%), tenacity (19.1%), discernment (12.1%) and, finally, curiosity (0.5%).

Customer Success Manager skills

The career satisfaction in customer success

We’re told from a young age, find a career you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life. For the most part, customer success is a career that lots of people have stumbled upon, one most won’t have heard of 20 years ago.

Yet when we asked our survey participants what their career aspirations were, 65.8% of them said they want to take the next step on the customer success career ladder, while 25% of people acknowledged that they’re quite content where they are. That’s a pretty overwhelming response, right?

A small number of people (4.5%) admitted that in actual fact, they want to be an entrepreneur, with just 4% confessing that they desire to change fields entirely.

Those who are seeking alternative roles noted that they wanted to stay within their company but utilize their skills in a different role. As one respondent put it, ‘as a CSM, you work cross-functionally with most departments so you're exposed to more opportunities for growth within the company’.

In our survey, we asked what people’s favorite thing about working in customer success is. Overwhelmingly, most people agreed that being the voice of the customer to the company was in and of itself the most rewarding part of their job. Being able to be a representative for the people (customers) who’re responsible for the company’s wellbeing. To quote one person: ‘without customers, there is no company.’

For some people, the most rewarding part is building and retaining relationships with customers who can not only see the product’s value but can appreciate the quality of customer service afforded to them.

Customer interaction seems to be the highlight for most people we spoke to, allowing them to flex their own interpersonal skills:

"I feel this is the role I should have always been doing but there was never a name for it, so I previously was in Account Management. I love creating value for my clients, interacting with my clients, advocating for both them and the value our business brings to them."

The multiplicity of customer success is what attracted this respondent:

"It really is a Jack-of-all-trades type of role; you need to work with everyone in the company and have the ability to learn all aspects of the business."

Another person resonated with this claim, saying:

"For me, it’s the diversity of activities, clients, and sectors. It is a daily crossword puzzle to be solved in the most effective and sustainable way."

Enjoying the people aspect of customer success is one thing, but being able to relate it to the economic aspect of the business is another:

"I really love the combination of being a trusted advisor and doing my part in our commercial pipeline (like upselling and cross-selling)."
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The value felt working in customer success

If we’ve learned anything, it’s that the experience to work in customer success is nuanced and intricate. Trying to understand how proactive people feel in influencing actual change in their company is another way to determine customer success’ value in organizations.

We asked: On a scale of 0-10, how much influence do you feel you have on shaping your company's goals and strategy?

We found: The results accumulated an average score of 6.7/10.

how much influence do you feel you have on shaping your company's goals and strategy

Always after a second opinion, this is what Chad Horenfeldt, Director of Customer Success at Kustomer had to say about this average score:

"This tells me that the CS team doesn't have enough influence on the executive team. This is a tough one as CS teams are extremely passionate about their customers and if they are a good team, they should never be happy about the company goals unless they are taking the voice of the customer into account. This can be challenging at times and it's why CS teams must always be looking for ways to shed light on the plight of the customer."

Feeling like you’re having the right impact can dramatically affect your own perception of your job. We wanted to gain a better understanding of the influence customer success pros feel like they have on shaping the direction of the actual product(s) they market. Are they bringing about change?

We asked: On a scale of 0–10, how much influence do you feel you have on shaping the direction of the product(s) you market?

We found: The results accumulated an average score of 6.2/10.

How much influence do you feel you have on shaping the direction of the product(s) you market

Again, we put this statistic to one of our Chad who gave his opinion on this score:

‘This could mean many things but CS teams are never typically happy with the product. There are always features that CS teams want for their customers. It's challenging as resources are limited. CS and Product need to be working closely together and the proper expectations need to be set. There also needs to be communication channels set up between these teams so items can be escalated and prioritized.’

And, in terms of personal value, there is never going to be a universal opinion. Many people love working in a customer-centric environment and helping others achieve their goals. These are the things people aspire to, but what about their value within their company? Does the work they do match up to the reception from other teams and senior leadership?

We asked: On a scale of 0-10, how much do you feel your role in customer success is valued at your company?

We found: The results revealed an average score of 7.7/10.

How much do you feel your role in customer success is valued at your company

This average score of 7.7/10 is pretty good if you ask us, but we wanted to know what Chad thought of it:

‘CS people tend to do a lot of things that will never get noticed. Part of it is on the CS leader to create avenues so that CS teams and customers get noticed more. This could be running a VOC initiative such as a survey and publishing the results to the company or creating a customer stories slack channel. [At Kustomer], we run a monthly executive meeting where we discuss the health of our clients with the executive team. CS teams can't assume that the story of the customer is being told. They need to create the right rituals to get the word out.’

The perspective of customer success in organizations

We asked a couple of our interviewees how the customer success function is perceived within their orgs.

According to Rebecca Fenlon, Head of Customer Success at Cognassist:

CS is increasingly valued within companies, but by no means valued enough. Customer-centric companies will tend to value CS more, because they value their customers more. I think this should be the number one question you ask in an interview process – knowing a prospective employer is customer-centric is one of the most important indicators of knowing how much you and your function will be valued. And don’t forget to ask for examples!  Most employers will claim to be customer-centric, but just as they are validating your claims and experience, you should equally be validating theirs!

Chad Horenfeldt is of the opinion that:

CS people tend to do a lot of things that will never get noticed. Part of it is on the CS leader to create avenues so that CS teams and customers get noticed more. This could be running a VOC initiative such as a survey and publishing the results to the company or creating a customer stories slack channel. We run a monthly executive meeting where we discuss the health of our clients with the executive team. CS teams can't assume that the story of the customer is being told. They need to create the right rituals to get the word out.”

While we’d love to focus solely on the positives, it’s necessary to identify what further work needs to be done to improve customer success.

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The internal barriers within customer success

Unfortunately, working in customer success is much like any role with hurdles to overcome and problems to navigate. Customer success is still a relatively new function within a business and whether you’re Head of Customer Success or perhaps you’ve been a CSM for six months, these obstacles can lower productivity.

When we asked our survey respondents what their biggest gripe is, something that makes their job unnecessarily harder, the responses were diverse and thought-provoking. Many felt undervalued by senior management, either seen as ‘too junior’ or felt that there ‘isn’t a seat at the table’ for customer success, implying a lack of C-suite representation. Some people cited a lack of regard to product roadmaps as another obstacle hindering their productivity.

We did some investigating as to what problems can arise when working in customer success and asked our survey participants what was their biggest internal barrier or pain point in work.

As a relatively new business function, there is a palpable crossover between customer success and support within a company – over half of our participants claim to have integrated teams. And while we predict that time will distinguish the two functions, the overlap can be frustrating for some:

"Getting off the hamster wheel of support and working on solving issues before they are issues. Engineering only a finite amount of time to dedicate to improvements."

For others, one of the metrics closely associated with customer success is a particular pain point. Churn, as we know it, is when customers stop being active users and end their subscription. While this is something strongly associated with customer success, many feel that it’s not fair to wholly pin ‘lost customers’ on the CS team:

"Customer success teams have the finger pointed at them for churn, whereas the whole company should be accountable for providing our customers with what they need to get their desired outcomes."

We found this an interesting take, so we put it to one of our CS interviewees whether there is too much focus put on a generic agenda for CS teams to 'reduce churn'.

This is what Maranda Dziekonski, Chief Customer Officer at Swiftly, Inc., had to say on the matter:

"I don’t think there is too much focus on the generic agenda of reducing churn for companies with a churn issue. But, what’s important to add is that the leaders driving those efforts do not become shortsighted while moving these efforts along and are at the same time working to understand why there is churn and also create goals to solve that. If you are too focused on squashing churn that is happening at the moment, you’ll struggle to diagnose the issue and get ahead of it.

Mutual respect and collaboration are integral for a successful working relationship between departments, yet one of our survey participants admitted frustration with another team:

"The sales team looks down on the CSMs and at times can pass along that feeling to clients; they don’t understand what we do and don’t use us effectively. Meanwhile, we are building relationships and carefully preparing cutting-edge educational topics to keep our clients informed. We’re prepared to do great work for their clients. Day in and day out, we think of nothing but serving them in any way that builds trust and loyalty, which results in more sales and secure renewals."

One anonymous person found the lack of definition between departments takes its toll on their relationship with customers. If something goes wrong at one stage in the product cycle, then it negatively impacts customer success’ outreach:

"Dealing with customer service and product issues; can strain customer relationships, erode their confidence in us, and inhibit our ability to grow the account."

Another recurring ailment was the lack of communication between different teams:

"Product releases new features to customers before informing any customer-facing teams, and we often discover bugs or highlight features that are not useful to customers."

Other issues brought up included, but were not limited to:

  • Customer success teams being too small
  • Poor recruitment
  • Product management
  • Internal perception of the role
  • Bugs not prioritized or fixed timely
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Covid-19’s impact on careers in customer success

The world has been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic, with many aspects of normality still being put on hold. Businesses are slowly grappling with the prospect there’s been a shift in attitude to business, as people’s priorities change under the social response to the pandemic.

With the pandemic having shattered most aspects of traditional working life, we asked our experts to share their pearls of wisdom on how Covid-19 has affected customer success:

Chad Horenfeldt:

“CS needs to adapt to an environment where they can't visit their customers in person. How can they really get to know and understand their customers? CS teams need to have better access to data so they can be more proactive and get on top of issues. Trusted relationships become harder to form and easier to break. Leveraging online communities, webinars and virtual events, customer advisory boards, and online training become more critical. CS teams need to be creative.”

Rebecca Fenlon:

“Covid-19 has really challenged our assumption that relationships can only be built face-to-face. Over half of my team is yet to meet a customer in person, and yet they have continued to nurture and develop the strong relationships and strategic understanding of our high-touch clients that we would expect!
“Whilst we would still advocate for some interactions needing to happen face-to-face, we have definitely adapted our views on how much of our client interactions need to happen in person. This has allowed us to expand the number of clients our CSMs support and increased productivity.”

Corinne Goldberg, Customer Success Team Leader at Google Marketing Platform:

“The industry has been challenged over the past 1.5 years to think about new ways of supporting our customers as we all continue to navigate remote work. Customer success professionals are thinking creatively about how to lean more directly into value and ROI, engage strategically during “moments that matter” across the lifecycle, and leverage the technology at our disposal to create a remote working environment that encourages better collaboration with our customers and cross-functional partners.
“One of the biggest challenges has been building and sustaining deep and long-lasting relationships with our customers. I’m thrilled to see that adoption of collaboration tools has experienced exponential growth during Covid-19, as organizations look for new tooling to support remote work. I believe the “DigitalHQ” is here to stay, and I’m looking forward to watching how my peers across the customer success community use technology to develop creative and impactful ways to engage customers along their adoption journey.”

To sum up

The premise of the State of Customer Success report is to assess the CS landscape and to quash any ambiguity surrounding what CS actually is. We discovered that the majority of the 200 survey respondents enjoy working in customer success, despite not necessarily having been in the field for long.

To tie things up, let’s mull over the intuitive words of Brittany Yandura, Customer Success Manager at Fieldguide, and her perspective of working in customer success:

“What I enjoy about CS and also think bodes well for the future as that the business world at large has a newfound interest and renewed investment in understanding this role and using it correctly.  
“With any industry, the one thing that can't be commoditized is the relationship formed with customers.  It's a true differentiator when a company has world-class CS.  
“What I'm excited about is the potential for a revolution where investment in providing amazing customer success becomes the norm.  As both a CS professional and a consumer, I find this incredibly promising!”