What do CSMs do?

In the past few months, I’ve worked with a half-dozen vendors who all had different views of their Customer Success programs, hence the roles of their Customer Success Managers (CSMs). That got me thinking about the range of distinct activities that may come under the umbrella of customer success:

  • Converting prospects (using freemium products or running POCs (Proof of Concept) projects.
  • Onboarding customers, getting them trained and set up to use the product
  • Providing technical support
  • Monitoring usage and expanding adoption
  • Providing best practices for using the product or service
  • Nurturing an ongoing relationships with customers
  • Renewing contracts
  • Identifying revenue expansion opportunities
  • Selling into the existing customer base.

Is it all Customer Success?

Now some of the activities may strike you as being outside the scope of customer success programs. Converting prospects, for instance. Isn’t that a job for the sales team? and tech support a job for, well, Tech Support? Renewals and selling look like they may belong elsewhere, too.

  1. Depending on the circumstances, not all activities are needed. For instance, renewals could be entirely automated.
  2. It’s difficult to find people who can sell and have great relationship-building skills and can run and interpret usage metrics and know the product inside-out for training and tech support. So specialization is common, and beneficial.
  3. For startups, it’s quite normal for the customer success program, and CSMs, to do a little bit of all the activities listed above (and more!)
  4. With low-complexity products and services, it’s absolutely possible for one person to  fulfill several roles, in particular technical and relationship-building roles.
  5. Conflicts may occur with scheduling rather than roles: onboarding and technical support are quite similar skills, but having to show up for scheduled onboarding sessions makes it difficult to respond well in an interrupt-driven support environment. so specialization is common, if not absolutely required.

The decisions often come with scale: there are few benefits to specialization for small teams (Big is Beautiful, to quote an FT Works maxim). Selling (including renewals) is usually the first to get partitioned off, followed by tech support. The core activities for customer success, onboarding, best practices guidance, and relationship building, may remain unspecialized for the long run, or diverge into different teams.

What does it mean for hiring?

My observation, looking at my clients’ experience, is that it is difficult to find experienced CSMs. One of the reasons why vendors create specialized teams for onboarding is that it’s relatively easy to hire onboarding specialists and teach them what they need to do — with the expectation that one day they may mature into relationship builders.

(Self-serving plug: FT Works offers great Customer Success training and a hiring guide, too.)

How do you conceive of Customer Success? What’s working or not for you?

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