CSM Specialization: Balancing Relationships and Knowledge

March 24, 2020

Marley Wagner

Category: Customer Experience, Customer Retention, Customer Success as a Service, Customer Success Strategy

While we may agree that it takes a certain set of characteristics that make an awesome CSM, your definition of the role of a Customer Success Manager (CSM) likely looks slightly different than the definition that your competitors, vendors, and customers use in their own businesses. The set of customers each CSM interacts with will look different based on your segmentation and engagement model, and the stages of the customer lifecycle that each CSM manages could look different based on CSM specialization.

Typically, we see companies take one of two common approaches to CSM specialization:

  1. No specialization: a CSM has full lifecycle management responsibility for a defined set of customers. This setup prioritizes a single relationship for the customer over depth of knowledge.
  2. Specialization by lifecycle stage: customers work with an Onboarding Specialist, Adoption Specialist, Renewals Specialist, and so on. In this scenario, the customer has access to more depth of knowledge, but also creates multiple handoffs and places a premium on coordination between specialists.

Clearly, each approach has its own set of pros and cons. So, ESG CEO Michael Harnum recently asked the members of The Customer Success Forum to share how they think about CSM specialization. His request provoked a number of different viewpoints worth considering. Below are a few that got us thinking.

I’ve also tagged the comments with the names of their creator, in case you’re interested in following these folks on LinkedIn. Some posts have been edited for length or clarity.

Prioritize the relationship, but don’t sacrifice expertise

LinkedIn: Ed Powers

“I think this is another example where viewing the problem from the customer’s perspective really helps. It’s been my experience that customers value continuity and hate the ‘revolving door.’ They expect providers to know about them and their business, and they detest continually re-educating the next person assigned to them. They expect competence, but also understand there are levels of technical depth, and acknowledge sometimes a specialist is required.”

LinkedIn: Remco de Vries

“As a CSM you’re building a long-lasting relationship. You can do that through handovers, but in my opinion, it’s easier with a dedicated CSM. We do specialize when it comes to subject matter expertise. For example, our SMEs with unparalleled knowledge on a subject will join customer meetings when needed.

CSMs bring it all together

LinkedIn: Steve Bernstein

“Why not the CSM as ‘relationship/resource manager’ that can pull in specialists as needed?”

Short, sweet, and concise. We love this, Steve!

LinkedIn: Olaf Geyer

“We see the CSM as the advocate for the customer. With that comes general knowledge of the product and product adoption. We deploy specialists throughout all phases as necessary, but the CSM is the person that binds all phases together.”

Reflect on customer, product, and team to find the right balance

LinkedIn: Marty Kaufman

“The optimal model is likely driven by some combination of your customers, your product, and the general expectations you have for your team…The best model for any company needs to consider the entire environment.

Some customers expect a more personalized experience with consistent relationships across their lifecycle, but if your product is complex, then you’ll likely benefit from using specialized relationships with each phase. It becomes harder to find CS unicorns who are deep experts across 10 unique tasks, for example.”

Join the conversation on LinkedIn!