What is the role and purpose of Customer Success Management in an organization?
Let's break that question down. The first thing I want to talk about is Customer Success. What is Customer Success? It's when the customer successfully achieves its goals in terms of the value that it wanted to get out of whatever they purchased from their supplier. The products, services, or the combination of both that were built into a solution for them were purchased by them and then used over time to generate value, whatever that might be. If for example, they purchased business analysis software, they might have used this software to help them make business decisions over the period of the next two or three years. If the software is helping them make high-quality business decisions, and in doing so helping them to generate more value for their business then they will be happy with their purchase because they are getting value out of the product. That is Customer Success.
Let’s move on to Customer Success Management. This is the best practice process of helping customers to attain as much of that value as possible in as short a time frame as possible, and to increase that value over the entire period as much as possible. So for our final definition, the Customer Success Manager is somebody who is trained and qualified in Customer Success Management best practices. In short, Customer Success Managers (CSMs) perform Customer Success Management best practice activities with customers to help those customers maximize their Customer Success. But this only needs to occur on what might be described as an “official” basis where the need is complex enough to require it.
This is similar to project management for example, where a project is a series of activities that end in a result that we want. Not all projects require a full-time, dedicated, qualified project manager because those projects are relatively simple. The same thing applies to Customer Success Management. If we've got a high-quality, sophisticated B2B product, it might well be that it fits very well for Customer Success Management.
Are you seeing a growing interest from companies in Customer Success Management via a customer-centric vision? And if so, how do you explain this?
I would say, without a doubt, Customer Success Management is growing. I’m no expert in statistics, but if you perform a little bit of research on Google, I’m sure that you will easily be able to find statistics around the growth in Customer Success Management as a profession over the last five or ten years. And it is phenomenal, both before and after the whole COVID situation. There was a little dip when it wasn't going so quickly for maybe six to eight months after March 2020, but after that, it picked straight back up, and once again Customer Success Management is very much a growing industry. Due to this, there is most definitely a shortage of good quality Customer Success Managers with real CS experience, and people are being taken from other professions to fill the customer Success Management recruitment gaps.
How do I explain this growing interest in Customer Success Management? Well, I think that there is a wider movement towards and an increased focus on customer business outcomes rather than on products and services alone.
In the traditional way of working, the supplier and the customer had different views of the world. The supplier wanted to sell as many products as possible and the customer wanted to buy the right product to achieve a particular goal. But in this model it isn’t the supplier’s problem to help the customer achieve that goal, just to get them to buy the product. Once the product is purchased, the revenues have been gained, and the supplier’s job was done unless, for example, the product breaks, and then it would need fixing. But assuming the product doesn’t break, that’s the end of the relationship. The supplier has got its revenues and is happy, and the customer has got its product. However, the customer is now left on its own to achieve its actual business outcomes, which is fine for the supplier, but not so good for the customer.
The new way of working is instead of engaging on a product basis, the supplier now goes in and consults with the customer, spends time to understand their actual initiatives, challenges, and problems, and helps the customer to come up with a solution to those challenges, problems by using their products and services. They also then help them to work out how they're going to measure the results from the activity that will take place, and what it is that they're going to be able to achieve, having purchased this solution of products and services. After this, they work with the customer over an extended period to help them achieve this value, in other words, to attain what is generally these days called their business outcomes. This suits the customer much better than the old model because now they have the suppliers' help not just during the pre-sales part of their journey when they are selecting the right products and services to purchase, but also in the post-sales journey when they are then using those products and services to generate the value.
In other words, the supplier is helping the customer to do its job. Previously the customer had to choose the right product, which the supplier helped them with, but then the customer had to work on its own to get the outcomes it needed. Now, when you think about it, of course, the customer is an expert in their own business, but they're not an expert in the supplier’s products and services. On the other hand, the supplier is just such an expert. So does it not make sense that rather than waving goodbye, the two parties continue to work together to help the customer get the most out of the supplier’s products and services in the context of their initiative, and their outcome requirements?
Nowadays customers are savvier and that's what they're looking for a – supplier who goes further than just handing them the product and waving goodbye. They want somebody who is going to say yes, after you've made the purchase, we will continue working with you to help you achieve your outcomes. That is why customer success management is so important.
All of the above is coupled with another massive trend, particularly in the technology industry, which is to move to an X-as-a-Service, contract-based, renewal-based way of purchasing and using (sometimes referred to as consuming) technology.
The consumption model used to be that you paid the price and the product became yours and that’s exactly how software used to be sold. If you remember, you bought the DVD, it came shrink wrapped in a box and it had a version number on it. It was your DVD, and you went around and installed that particular version of that software application on your computers.
Long gone is that time! Right now, it's all in the cloud. It’s not your software anymore, it's not even on your machine a lot of the time. Instead, it remains our software on our machines, in the cloud. All you need do as the customer is log in and use it. When it comes to upgrades, you don’t have to upgrade it. It's our problem to keep it up to date for you and to keep it working. You get an SLA (service level agreement) that states that we will make sure that it's always available, always up to date, and always functioning and working correctly. And that is the new X-as-a-Service model, particularly for Software-as-a-Service, but really for many things. And so this X-as-a-Service model, of course, is sold via a renewable contract. It may be for three years or one year, or it may be a monthly contract, but whatever that time period is, it’s now in the interests of the supplier to make sure the customer is happy at the end of that contract period, because what do we want them to do?
Well, of course, we want them to renew, because otherwise we've spent all that time and effort in marketing and selling to attract them in, and then we’ve got one sale out of them for one year or one month or whatever the period is. And then we've lost them again and we didn’t get anything like the entire customer value of retaining that customer for multiple years. And so customer retention has become a very serious issue, particularly, as we said, for software companies. SaaS companies, in particular, have focused and doubled down on Customer Success Management to manage their renewals and to reduce what they describe as churn; ie customers not renewing. So that's why Customer Success Management has grown so much.
Does Customer Success Management concern all sectors of activity today?
I think it can do, yes. Let’s say, first of all, any organization that has customers probably has an interest in those customers being successful. So as we said earlier, there are a couple of refinements about that that we can make. This is firstly to consider the complexity of the product or the service that you produce and/or that you provide to your customers. If it is a relatively simple product or service, then perhaps the need for Customer Success Management services from an expert professional who comes in and helps the customer to achieve the maximum value in the shortest time is minimal, because it's obvious how to get the maximum value out of that product.
For example, let's say we sell chewing gum. In this circumstance, I think our customers will probably be able to work out how to get the full value out of the product that they have purchased without the need for professional services. Fingers crossed, we can provide a few diagrams and illustrations and a few step-by-step instructions and I think they’ll probably be able to work it out from there.
The other thing to consider aside from the complexity and simplicity of our product is the appetite of the customer to get help. Some customers might be very hands-on and they like to do things themselves. If asked, these customers might say “Thank you very much, we'll call you if we need you, but we've got this. Thank you. We’re great at consuming new software applications or consuming other new services that we haven't used before. Whatever the nature of that product or service is, we're fine. We can get the value ourselves.”
Other companies might be less mature, or they might be smaller in size. They may not have HR specialists or training specialists or change management specialists within their organization. They would love some assistance from us, the supplier, to help them to get the maximum out of the product or service they have purchased, and they'll use any amount of uncharged professional services we care to throw at them.
Now, of course, there is a value curve here. We can't just hire more and more Customer Success Managers. They cost money and the more that we do in Customer Success Management, the more it's going to cost. We need to manage the value that we return to the customer, and the value that it costs us, to make sure that the value returned is higher so that the customer is renewing more than they would be otherwise and is renewing at a higher level than they would be otherwise so that we are getting the value out of it.
In summary, if we've got a complex or sufficiently complex product and if we have customers who want and desire our help and assistance to maximize the value from that product after they've purchased it, then we most definitely have got a setup that would lend itself very well to Customer Success Management.
For which job types is it essential to test candidates’ Customer Success skills?
Well, of course, the obvious answer to that is Customer Success Managers. That is a role now itself, and it is contained within a department or a function of the business that is typically not a traditional one; it's being set up more and more, and it's the new kid on the block. It is the new department. It fits alongside all your other departments, your Product Development, Finance, Marketing, Legal, Sales, and now Customer Success Management. I would say it is a department, a team, and/or a role in and of itself.
As such, it has a leader which might perhaps be referred to as the VP for Customer Success or Head of Customer Success, or example, the Customer Success Director. So we've got somebody who represents this new department to the senior team, and that person will report to someone who is at the C-level; typically the Chief Customer Officer or maybe the Chief Operations Officer, Chief Sales & Marketing Officer, or maybe directly to the CEO.
There is a role that is a full-time permanent role of Customer Success Management. Quite obviously yes, you would need to assess Customer Success Managers for customer success management skills. Of course, you would. But are they the only ones? There is a lot of overlap between Customer Success Management best practices and the more account management aspects of sales and between Customer Success Management and the more proactive aspects of customer service or customer support.
Perhaps you have team members who you are thinking you want to perform a dual role, or who you are marking for future movement from one of those two roles into customer success when you eventually launch your customer success department or team. Maybe you’re not ready yet, because you haven't quite grown to the size where when you can justify an independent Customer Success team. Well then maybe Customer Success Management, as it is not yet being managed by Customer Success Managers is being managed by Sales through their account managers or by Customer Service through their customer service managers.
If this is the case then when you're recruiting for those positions, you need to consider that and you need to be thinking about asking Customer Success Management-related questions for those roles. I would say that because Customer Success Management is more proactive, more business consultative, and more outcome-focused, it contains some great skills for account management style proactive selling anyway. And similarly, for proactive customer service where we’re not waiting for them to trip over a problem, and instead we're proactively going out and helping them to achieve more in the first place. So again, very useful skills in both of those areas. So those would be the two of these areas, Account Management and anything that was Customer Service related.
But I would also argue that although Customer Success Management is primarily the role of the trained and qualified Customer Success Manager, there is no reason why just like selling is primarily the role of the sales professional, everybody should be selling, similarly, everybody should be helping customers to be successful. Within any customer-facing role for sure you could be picking out some Customer Success Management role assessment questions when you're interviewing them and these would likely be very relevant, particularly where you want someone to be more consultative, to be proactively asking questions, to be understanding the customer’s business outcomes and to be working on the attainment of those business outcomes with the customer.
At what point during the recruitment process would you advise a recruiter to test the Customer Success Management skills? Would it be after the first CV screening? Would it be after the first interview?
I'm not a recruitment expert, however, I do have an opinion as a non-recruitment expert. I would say it might vary somewhat, but let's assume for answering this question that you are specifically recruiting Customer Success Managers or people who are going to a large extent fulfill a direct Customer Success Management style role regardless of what job title you give.
If they are fulfilling a Customer Success Management role then I would say that I would want to assess them after the first CV screening. Initially, I would perform some kind of basic CV or resume screening. This should leave us with a pile of people who are not relevant at all, and a pile of people who are possibilities. For those in that second pile, I would now get them to perform the assessment so that we then get help from the assessment results to determine which ones to ask in the first interview.
Otherwise, if you wait until the first interview, my feeling is that you will end up with potentially some of the candidates that would have been great missing off your list and vice versa, you will also have some people who were invited in who just aren't relevant. You could easily have gotten rid of those earlier on in the process. If you'd gone through an assessment early on, you would already have taken them out. So I think it's like a second screening in a way… that's how I would look at it. I'd say the first screening is a common sense look at:
- Is this the type of person that’s going to be the right fit?
- Have they answered the types of questions in the way that we want?
We’ll put them in the yes pile, we'll move them forward, then I would do the assessment process with the test questions and then that will help me decide which of these people I would then actually want to start to talk to because this is one thing that I will say and this has been said time and time and time again and again.
To reiterate, I am not a recruiter, I’m not in the recruitment business. I do not go around hiring customer success managers day after day after day. So I'm not as expert as others in this field, but in my opinion, there's too much of a focus on direct customer success management experience, when, as we’ve been saying, quite a lot of the role has already been done by other people who didn't have the title Customer Success Manager but have been doing the job. So it's not a question of saying, well, “we’ll get someone who's not skilled” to become our CSM saying, “yeah, we were looking for the people with the right skills”, but let's look more widely than only people who've had a role titled CSM before.
Let’s look at account management, let's look at customer service, let's look at project management, let's look at marketing, let's look at business consultancy as well, which is a really powerful area for people to come from and even industry and product subject matter specialists as well, ie those who consult with the customer around the industry that the customer is in for example. All of those are areas you can find people who are going to be really good Customer Success Managers, and the assessment will help you early on to find out who those are and then bring them in and find out more about them because you can lose some fantastic diamonds in the rough if you don't do that. And you could uncover some amazing jewels if you do it well.
What other methods can be used to test the Customer Success Management skills of a candidate?
Let’s say you've used the assessment that Maki People has provided to shortlist your candidates for interview, and you've gone through a round of interviews and maybe even brought a shortlist of candidates back for a second interview. Let’s further assume you like a couple of these candidates, but you’re not sure which one to pick. Well, I would say there are a few things you can do here.
The first thing is to check to see if they have any formal qualifications in Customer Success Management. By the way, training and certification are something that we provide. My company Practicalcsm.com, provides a wide range of training and certification in Customer Success Management. One of the features of our core certification program is that it has two exams. The first exam is a knowledge exam. This test is for what you know. The second exam is a test of the candidates’ ability to apply that knowledge in real-world scenarios. That makes it more of an application test. Passing both provides great evidence of a candidate’s potential for performance in the role of Customer Success Manager.
I think that you can take a similar approach with interview questions. As well as checking up on their knowledge and understanding, I would also be asking each candidate a series or giving them a series of scenarios. For example, I might say something like this:
“Let’s say you were the Customer Success Manager for us, and we gave you a client to manage. The client had just bought these products from us and they have these challenges. What would you do next?”
Those sorts of questions force the candidate to give you a longer and more detailed answer than just yes, or no, and instead they must apply what they know to a live situation and walk us through a step-by-step process to solve the challenge. This helps you understand more than just their level of book learning, but whether they can apply this knowledge in these types of real-world situations.
So I think I would try and do some scenario-based work with my candidates during the interview process. I think that's quite important. Another thing that I like is harder to achieve if you're still in the entire virtual world and you're not inviting candidates physically into your offices, and instead, you are just remotely interviewing them. But if you are in the real world, invite them into your office and go and walk them around and introduce them to everybody – as many people as possible of all levels and positions.
This can benefit the candidate. It helps them to think through:
- Is this the type of place I'd like to work with?
- Are these the type of people I want to be with?
It gives them a great opportunity to assess whether they might want to work with you. But whilst they are doing this, what you're also doing is observing their behavior. Because you see, whilst they are attending their interview, we can listen to their answers to our questions, but we can also make other observations, such as:
- How are they behaving in general?
- How are they treating people who are senior to them, who are on a level with them, and who are junior to them?
- How are they responding to more challenging questions and to pressure in general?
- How energetic and enthusiastic are they?
- How interested are they in more than just the specific things that they are being asked about, but what everybody is doing?
- How helpful are they to others?
- How observant are they
You can even have interactions that you’ve planned where someone comes in, juggling two big trays of drinks or something similar. Do they go to help or do they just stand there and watch the person struggling with big suitcases or whatever your scenario is? Test them out with a few scenarios like that. They don't know they're being tested, but they're being tested, for their soft skills and what was described earlier as transversal skills – skills that every customer-facing professional needs to be good at.
What we're looking for here is the answer to questions such as:
“Is this the type of person who understands relationships with people, who builds good relationships, who makes people comfortable being around them, who rolls their sleeves up and gets involved and gets on with things, who is versatile, who is creative, who's quick, who is responsive, who is a self-starter, who understands what’s happening and picks new things up quickly?”
There’s so much you can learn from observation during a physical interview as well, and I like that approach.
What do you see as the future of Customer Success Management in business?
Now, this is a great question because in the short term I would say without a doubt the profession is if not the fastest growing, certainly one of the fastest growing professions around. So for the short term what I see is continued growth; of course, that is assuming that we don't have a World War Three or a huge sudden catastrophic economic downturn that affects us all. But assuming the world carries on the way it's going on an even set of rails - then yes, I would say the future of customer success management at least in the short term is very rosy indeed.
Beyond the short term, I would say that everybody has to assess what they do and ask the question could artificial intelligence, could a computer, could automation do my job? Because if they haven't automated your job but they could, then they will ultimately. No matter who you are or what you do, without a doubt, it's going to be economically viable at some stage to replace you with AI. So what about AI and Customer Success Management? Well, the same thing applies.
Certain aspects of Customer Success Management could be and have already been successfully automated. I think that what we will see remaining in the future of Customer Success Management is relationship management, creative business consulting, innovation, the development of high-quality business proposals, and the presentation and reporting on that to business decision-makers. The customer-facing time and the clever ideas and the creative analysis and the discussions with customers will remain. On that side of things I think, Customer Success Managers are going to be more consultative. They’re going to be spending more time with the customer doing that sort of thing. A lot of the raw analysis and management of data et cetera can be handled by automation. To be quite honest with you, you can put a lot of what many Customer Success managers currently do in a data table and get the customer to look up a lot of basic information that they don't necessarily need a Customer Success Manager to help them with.
And by the way in sales, we've already seen this, right? 30 years ago, if I was buying a car, I might have to go to the showroom of Mercedes and BMW and Ford and Toyota or whoever I'm considering purchasing. And I'd go into that showroom and I would wait for a sales rep to be available. Then I would have to talk to that sales rep. They would ask me a bunch of questions about what I wanted and then they would show me around their vehicles, and that's how I learned about the different vehicles that were on offer.
But I don't need to do any of that anymore. I can go online and do all of that and I can do it at 02:00 in the morning or 03:00 p.m. on a Sunday or whenever I want to, and it’s raining outside and I'm quite happy with my cup of coffee inside on the Internet, doing my research in comfort without having to do small talk, et cetera. The same thing applies to Customer Success Management.
In other words, what I'm saying is, don’t think that automation is just a cheap way of delivering customer success. In fact, automation can be what the customer desires to an extent. However, when as a customer I finally have to make that big purchasing decision, I might still want to be reassured by a real person. I might want someone to help me overcome my fear: Am I making the right decision? Having performed my initial research, I might still want o reach out to a sales professional afterward and say for example:
“Let me explain my situation. I’ve narrowed it down with my research, but I'm thinking of this model or that model. What would you recommend for my specific circumstances and why?”
That’s when I want some hand holding. And that is again where the CSM comes in. Because in this type of situation the Customer Success Manager gives the customer the confidence and the competence to make high-quality business decisions that enable them to generate real value from their purchases. And that is the true value of Customer Success Management.
Rick Adams is a business owner, trainer, and consultant, specializing in helping Tech companies deliver measurable business value to their customers, and the author of “Practical Customer Success Management: A best practice framework for rapid generation of customer success”. He has 30 years of business experience including owning his own SaaS business, developing Cisco's CS certification, and founding the Practical CSM Academy; providing global Customer Success consulting training, and certification services for everyone from aspiring CSM new starters through to seasoned senior CSMs.