The 10 Simple* Traits of an Awesome CSM

October 22, 2019

ESG Customer Success

Category: Customer Success Resources


Every year, LinkedIn publishes a list of the “most promising” jobs in the American job market. Two years in a row, Customer Success Manager (CSM) has made the top 10, with year-over-year growth of more than 80 percent both years.

Many of the jobs on that list didn’t even exist five years ago. Others, like CSM, did exist — but only in small pockets in niche markets. As the CSM career path has evolved and grown, recruiters and HR professionals have had to play catch-up and get creative to source new talent.

At the same time, C-level decision makers in operations, sales, service, marketing, education, finance and more have been working to understand the depth and breadth of what Customer Success (CS) can mean to their businesses. The target is moving so quickly, it’s been difficult for these leaders to nail down exactly what they want from a CSM.

As a discipline, Customer Success is only going to continue to grow. Its strategic relevance and proven impact on business opportunity and growth has been well established. The bigger question is how efficiently businesses can integrate core CS principles into their operations. In our white paper, “Building a Business Case for More Customer Success Resources,” we discussed the power of outsourcing to solve all three of those growth obstacles. Here’s a sample:

Outsourcing ensures access to a larger pool of talent that is familiar with CS best practices — a key benefit given today’s tight labor market. This means that you have qualified talent mapping the customer journey and managing the accounts — uncovering opportunities, converting customers into ambassadors and making your business more agile. Additionally, you benefit from lower labor costs and increased revenue.

Even if CS did control its own budgets, CS leaders must be able to show how investments in Customer Success can lead to achieving a company’s goals — something many struggle with because they lack a clear model for how to budget and scale their activities.

According to TSIA’s The State of Customer Success 2019, there’s a major labor shortage in the marketplace for Customer Success. Since the CSM skillset is at a premium, median compensation for CSMs rose 7.5 percent between 2018 and 2019.

Cutting corners almost always comes back to haunt you sooner or later. If you hire your own team, you need to be aware of the ratio of customer accounts to CSMs. According to Gainsight, “if your CSMs are spread too thin, there will be less defense against churn and issues can slip through the cracks.”

At ESG, we know the CSM role like the back of our hand, and we’ve created clear and practical best practices for it. We’ve even developed the role of Virtual Customer Success Managers (vCSMs), trained professionals who can bring a passion to engage with customers and partners, help them better understand and use the full capabilities of your products, and help your business achieve incredible outcomes. Here’s what we look for in an awesome CSM:

10. They Anticipate Customer Needs and Bring Advice

Awesome CSMs lead your customers to the outcomes they (and you) desire. It’s not a reactive “I hope they get there” mentality, and it’s not a dialogue that should be led by your customer. It’s a proactive, intentional process of knowledge sharing and engagement, led by a talented problem-solver who’s always two steps ahead.

9. They Aren’t “Yes” People

Awesome CSMs are not there to simply fix something that’s broken or robotically react to a given situation. The best ones challenge customers in a professional, constructive way. The customer may be right from a wide-angle perspective, but they might be dead wrong in their application of a product or their problem solving approach. Striking the right tone between courtesy or appreciation and respectful correction can build credibility and make the difference between apathetic customers and ones who are fully engaged.

8. They Ask Open-Ended Questions and Listen

Awesome CSMs are great listeners. They can take a simple question and build on it with the “what,” “why,” “how,” and “tell me more” that both showcases their knowledge of your products and shows the customer that they were listening.

7. They Keep Their Promises

Awesome CSMs stick to their word and own their mistakes. Automation and artificial intelligence play a critical role in a successful CS strategy, but the human touch of accountability and adaptability can often deepen a customer relationship faster than anything else.

6. They Know the Value of Your Products

Awesome CSMs know both the technical capabilities of your products and the value they deliver to meet customer needs. Product education is a fundamental — but often trivialized — part of the CS experience. But without it, it’s impossible to move customers along the lifecycle from usage to value realization to advocacy.

5. They Learn Your Customer’s Business

Awesome CSMs take the time to learn your customer’s business goals, key performance indicators, and pain points. They do the research, and they value every touchpoint as a new opportunity to learn and deepen the relationship. If a customer doesn’t feel like you’re interested in investing in them, they’ll soon lose the urge to invest in you.

4. They Will Always Be Closing Consulting

Awesome CSMs turn the age-old ABC mantra to one built on a consultative mindset. Underinvesting in CS functions changes the sales process. It shifts the training, troubleshooting and customer coverage work to your sales force, taking away time better spent nurturing the relationship and bringing new leads and customers into the funnel. CSMs who can not only relieve that burden from sales, but also contribute to customer satisfaction and growth, are serious double threats.

3. They Take Ownership

Awesome CSMs don’t pass the buck every time a new issue arises. They own it and embrace the responsibility of problem solving without losing focus on their mission to turn every customer into a true brand advocate.

2. They Understand What Your Customer Needs to be Successful

Awesome CSMs know that every “problem” isn’t just rooted in what the software can do. Customers expect help with training, integration, troubleshooting and, most of all, improved organizational performance. They want answers — how do we reduce time spent on X, lower costs on Y, gain greater insight on Z. It’s a whole new level of value they demand (and no longer just desire). CSMs who believe they are simply there to troubleshoot are completely missing the bigger opportunity to find answers that will get customers promoted and turn them into rock stars.

1. They Forget Happy and Focus on Customer Outcomes

Awesome CSMs want “happy” customers, but they know there’s a bigger goal at stake. Creating great rapport is nice, but it doesn’t mean you’ve improved ROI and created an ideal outcome.

Turns Out They’re Not Simple

There you have it. Ten traits of great CSMs and, as you’ve noticed by now, they’re not at all simple to develop. Finding and developing that skill set is a skill set all its own.

There’s another uncomfortable truth to consider. The companies that get close to the ideal traits in their staff are the ones that are finding the resources and the willpower to provide next-level Customer Success — but only to their top tier clients: the 20 percent of clients that generate 80 percent of revenue. These companies are almost always missing a huge opportunity for retention and advocacy from mid-tier and bottom-tier customers. If there’s consensus that these 10 best practices are on the mark and that a proactive engagement philosophy is good business, then the philosophy should apply from the top of your customer list to the bottom, right?

Don’t try to build everything from scratch. You can check off all 10 traits on this list by finding the right partner who understands your business and your customers, and can help you build a realistic ROI model and a concrete plan of action. The next time LinkedIn bemoans the depth of the CSM talent pool, you’ll be increasing renewals, driving new revenue and decreasing churn like never before.

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