What Hiring Managers look for in a Customer Success Manager

In my career, I’ve directly hired and managed 25 Customer Success Managers and Customer Success Associates in 3 previous SMB and mid-market SaaS startups (2013 to present). Through trials and tribulations, I’ve learned what to look for in a candidate who would have the highest likelihood of success and enjoy the role long-term.

Back in 2013, Customer Success was a fairly new function in SaaS companies. Leaders were selling the value of Customer Success Managers and Associates, benchmarking salary bands, understanding KPIs, discovering account capacities and HIRING the right candidate. Because it was such a new function, the majority of applicants did not have customer success experience / titles at that time, which made hiring tricky. Someone who is ‘starting’ or ‘pivoting’ into Customer Success truly does not know what they are getting into. This may result in a bad match. However, with the exception of a Senior Customer Success Manager position, I would argue that hiring someone without previous CS experience benefits the team and company, bringing with them a fresh perspective and a diverse set of skills.

The Customer Success Managers (CSMs) and Customer Success Associates (CSAs) I’ve hired came from a wide array of work experience (0 to 10 years in Sales, Design, Finance, Legal, Advertising, Hospitality, Consulting, Support, or recent grad). Some are still in Customer Success, while some discovered other roles more suited for their skills (i.e. Product, Design, Account Management). If you are thinking of becoming a Customer Success Manager, this article covers the common competencies of those who have transitioned into fulfilling CS careers.

Competencies pt. 1

Goal Oriented

Software companies I’ve been part of have required CSMs to be more proactive than reactive. While there are plenty of inbound emails and calls, my CSMs have had to be very proactive due to the following reasons: Product is a nice-to-have, Customers are too busy and hard to get a hold of (small business owners tend to have a lot on their plate), or Product is complex and not user-friendly.

In cases where the customer has a low sense of urgency, the CSM must step up and coach the customer towards completing trainings, checklists and tasks. (It may take 10 touch points to get it done!). To put it simply, the customer’s goals are ours. When the customer achieves these agreed-upon goals, they can fully realize the value of the product. Hopefully the customer, subsequently advocates and continues to renew the contract.

How do I find this relentless mindset in candidates? One of my favorite questions to ask is ’Tell me about a time when you’ve had to overcome obstacles to complete a project or a goal.' SDRs and Sales reps are trained with this mindset, due to the nature of of their work: high-pressure, quota driven. Sometimes, I get examples of those who have a side gig like freelancing or running their own small business. It could even be a college event that the candidate organized and relentlessly worked to get it done. Whatever it takes.

Tech Savvy

I usually discover tech savviness later in the process when a candidate presents a case study. For more junior CSMs, I ask for a short presentation about an app they really like. For more senior hires, a take home case study or an in-person 1 hour assessment.

What I look for is their preparation, thought process, and delivery. Customers of ours are not as savvy with technology, but if you do apply for more technically complex startups, this may require you to do extensive research. For example, if you interview for a company that asks for prior knowledge of APIs, CDNs or PPCs as ‘bonus points’, you have to show aptitude through your presentation. If you end up stuck during the interview, it’s completely fine to admit you don’t know, but do share how you will find the answer.

Also, if it’s a video interview - set up your Zoom, BlueJeans, Hangouts or Skype prior to the meeting. It’s obvious when a candidate has not been exposed to video conferencing, causing the interviewer to doubt they can quickly pick up all the tools CSMs use: Salesforce, Cirrus, Gainsight, Evernote, Google Apps, Microsoft Office, etc.

Competencies pt. 2

Communication Skills

You don’t necessarily need to have the gift of gab, but being able to carry a conversation and listening intently are must-haves. CSMs have a tremendous amount of email, phone and video calls with customers, who associate the CSM as the ‘face of the company’. At the same time, CSMs interact internally with product, sales and marketing frequently.

To be clear, both extroverts and introverts can be great conversationalists. Extroverts have a tendency to speak a lot but may not listen intently. Introverts tend to be strong listeners, but may not speak up often. The most important 'communication' quality one can have (besides speaking and listening) is curiosity. Discovering the root cause of customer issues, navigating through an organization, understanding group dynamics, etc. A great CSM will need to do these to be effective in being seen as a trusted advisor.

When I’ve interviewed CSMs and Sales reps, I often ask why they are applying for the role. Often it’s because they enjoy building relationships. It’s not a bad answer, but often times, the candidate missed their opportunity to do that with me during the call. Here are two tips:

For starters, asking “How’s your day so far” or “How was your weekend” open up the conversation.

Looping back early parts of the conversation and turning them into questions show great listening skills and impromptu skills.

Selling (yes, CSMs do sell)

Maybe it’s just me but a lot of CSMs wince at the idea of ‘selling’. For one reason or another, Sales has this inaccurate representation. People believe the profession is akin to being a Used Car salesman selling a lemon or someone who will ‘manipulate’ the customer to purchase something they don’t need. Fortunately, I have not seen this type of overreaching sales pitch. The sales departments I’ve worked with go through a long list of qualification activities which include time, budget, resources, etc. In most cases, the customer is ready to move forward after signing the contract.

Back to CSMs, selling continues during onboarding, adoption, business reviews and renewals. In fact, think of every interaction as a pre-sales activity. In CS, the goal is for the customer to achieve their objectives and CSMs help with this through product and feature adoption.

By sharing benefits and story telling, a CSM effectively is selling ‘why’ a feature is important. In many cases, the CSM is asking the customer to do things differently than they have before. While the sales rep may sell them on the idea, CSMs’ job is to turn this idea into practice and ultimately, into a habit.

As the company grows, the product will continue to evolve and improve. Naturally, new features or changes in the product will occur. The CSMs' responsibility is feature adoption, which helps customers achieve their desired outcome or solve a new problem they didn't expect the product to address.

The reality is that you’re probably ‘selling’ already but you may not know it. Have you convinced a friend to go to a concert with you? Or how about a trip out of town? In your daily conversations, have you asked your partner to consider exercising with you? Or maybe to try out a new cuisine.

In all of these examples, you discover a pain (boredom on a Saturday night) and match it with a solution (concert, comedy show, dinner). By doing so, you mention the benefits of each (dancing/singing, laughing, conversing/eating). If you do any of these you’ve gone through the basics of selling.

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