What are customer success managers and why are they so important?
Customer success managers are one of the fastest-growing roles in the business world. What is driving such rapid adoption?
The business world seemingly has a revolving door of new and confusing job titles, the majority of which are the work of over-indulged (or perhaps over-caffeinated) business leaders, eager to add some glamour or fascination to existing roles. In recent years we’ve seen the likes of ‘customer happiness hero’, ‘conversation architect’ and ‘chief storyteller’ briefly emerge, before common sense prevailed.
But not all unfamiliar job titles lack validity. Chief marketing technologists are on the rise, for example. And it doesn’t seem long ago that business cards emblazoned with ‘head of customer experience’ (or a variation thereof) were met with sneers of derision.
And the most significant ‘new’ role to have emerged in recent years is arguably that of customer success manager. One of the fastest-growing and most in-demand jobs in the business world at present, research by LinkedIn has estimated that the role of ‘customer success manager’ is the third fastest growing job this year, with the professional network estimating that there has been 91% year-on-year growth.
So what do customer success managers do – and why is it proving so important that their adoption is going through the roof?
How did customer success managers evolve?
The customer success manager (CSM) is a role that evolved out of the account management function in the technology sector in response to a macro trend that revolutionised the industry.
James Scott is general partner at Success Hacker, a consultancy and trainer for organisations seeking to accelerate their growth through customer success. He explains: “The emergence of cloud and mobile technology has meant that the cost of developing new software products has dropped substantially over the last 10 years or so, so there are more software solutions to choose from. It has also become a lot easier to implement new software are businesses are not having to install servers and software and then configure it. It is just software-as-a-service. So it is easier for companies to switch between different platforms if a solution isn’t working for them. And together this has completely changed the industry from a decade ago.”
For software vendors 10 years ago, the focus was on closing deals – getting a contract signed, getting the money in the bank, and when it came to implementation and support, the onus was on spending the least amount of money as possible as it would just eat into your margins. And, of course, if the customer wasn’t happy, and they didn’t feel like they were getting value, then there was little they could do, having invested so much time and money implementing it. But now it is a different story.
Scott continues: “If you’re a software company, you have to make sure your customers are getting value and recognise the value they get every month, because they are constantly evaluating whether they want to continue paying a subscription to this software. So for today’s companies, it is not about the initial sell anymore – it is about repeatedly delivering value, and repeatedly demonstrating that value to the customer.”
Of course, what ‘value’ looks like can vary from customer to customer – the product may be the same, but how customers use it and the outcomes they are trying to achieve could differ. That means that the role of a customer success team is to be constantly understanding what the customer is trying to achieve, and making sure they have the knowledge and information about not only the technology, but also wider best practices and industry trends, to ensure that they will achieve their desired outcomes.
Scott describes CSMs as a kind of “navigator”.
“The customer is in the driving seat, but the CSM is a navigator, they are there to make sure there is a route planned towards the goals the customer wants to achieve, even though they don’t touch the steering wheel or the pedals. So it is a much more proactive role. You don’t just wait for the customer to contact you, you are asking the customer and trying to understand their needs and helping them find the features and adopt the features that will help them specifically for their business to extract value. If you do that well then they will keep paying you money and will even spend more money over time.”
What are customer success managers' key responsibilities?
While the role of the CSM varies from industry to industry, there are some common duties and responsibilities:
- Retain, grow and develop accounts through regular interactions with clients.
- Onboard new clients, ensuring smooth transition of programs from competitive systems. Implement and plan for new programs, partnering with technical and strategic resources.
- Continuously review the health of their accounts, educate clients on industry trends, best practices and recommend relevant company products to help them achieve continued results to meet their business goals.
- Consult and participate in all aspects of the sales and upsell cycle including, proposals, scoping, pricing, demonstrations and contract negotiations, related to all opportunities across existing client and partner base.
- Capture and quantify business impact of results for clients and partners, with the goal of being able to foster advocates in the form of references, case studies, and event speakers.
- Share industry knowledge and explain to the sales and product teams the demands of the markets while forecasting trends the company should be aware of in order to sell or develop new products to address the new learnings.
- Be active in new business proposals, sharing insights on the common challenges customers contend with and explaining how the company’s suite of products has delivered success for clients.
We asked a handful of CSMs for their thoughts on the role at their particular organisations.
- Rebecca Roberts, customer success manager at MarketInvoice: “For me, the most important aspect of the role is ensuring that the Customer has a voice within our organisation, that their opinions are heard and acted upon; leading to more successful outcomes for both MarketInvoice and our Customers.”
- Rolf Siegel, senior customer success manager at Celonis: “At Celonis, the CSM serves as a single point of contact for all customer-related activities. The CSM is responsible for the customer’s overall experience and can share broad knowledge for how other customers have found success, providing solutions. In a way, they serve as general practitioners and forward the customer to specialists that can help tackle the root causes with expert knowledge. At Celonis, this could be architects, data scientists, developers, solution engineers, partners, process experts or business developers.”
- Kat Fisher, head of customer success at Disciple: “A typical day at Disciple would include explaining the app launch process to a new customer, running product training sessions and troubleshooting any specific issues whilst also working on longer term projects such as helping customers help themselves, by creating learning materials & videos.”
- Nick Honey, senior customer success manager at Optimizely: “Large proportions of the role involve project management and product training, ensuring the customer is fully on-board with all of the latest iterations of the product, and aware of the full scope of use cases provided by the business. We also tend to have heavy involvement in the strategy side of the customers we work with, scaling the customer program and maturity, defining the metrics that would define success and leading subsequent results and review sessions. We can even sometimes handle crisis management issues.”
What is the future for customer success managers?
While the growth in customer success managers has led to a few raised eyebrows, those who have witnessed the impact of the role first-hand are unsurprised by its proliferation.
“Companies that put their customers at the heart of the operation win; and more CEOs are recognising the importance of well-run customer success teams in making this happen,” notes Fisher.
“It’s often harder to win new business than retain existing, therefore by having a CSM it enables sales to focus on winning new business whilst CS manage the existing customer base,” adds Roberts. “Happy customers are often a company’s biggest advocate/ambassador, thus making it easier to do more business with existing customers, through upsell opportunities and referrals. Customer acquisition cost can be very high and so retention can be key to growing a solid customer base. Sales individuals are also able to use the services of a customer success manager as a value-added service to help close the sale.”
We’ve entered the age of the customer – and experience is everything.
And those working in the field believe that with a growing focus on customer experience, and the subscription economy encompassing far more than just the technology sector, we are only witnessing the beginning of the rise and rise of the customer success manager.
“The need for CSMs will, of course, continue to rise over the next few years, especially as the business world moves to subscription-based software models,” says Steve Tan, Director Customer Success, EMEA/APAC, at Urban Airship. “Along with this, according to analyst firm, Synergy Research, the SaaS market is predicted to double in size over the next couple of years, encouraging broad growth in dedicated CSM teams.”
Leslie Green, senior director, customer success at CA Technologies, adds: “We’ve entered the age of the customer – and experience is everything. A CSM often picks up where an account manager or implementation services leave off - guiding the customer through that post-sale journey and ensuring that business outcomes are achieved.”
“The customer is gaining more power, and even more traditional industries are looking at customer success as a way to adapt and apply customer care principles; focusing on their needs and monitoring value instead of purely focusing on sales and revenue,” notes Emilie Dubau, manager of customer success at Sana Commerce.
Roberts concludes: “For any business that depends upon continuing income streams from its customers, the choice is becoming clear: you either actively manage your customer relationships, or you effectively cede control over them and your company’s future to chance and/or the competition. Customer acquisition is only the very first step in an extended journey for both customer and company. I believe that more businesses are seeing the value of having a team dedicated to their customers, ensuring that they have a good experience and want to remain as a customer.”
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.