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Customer Success Hiring: Who is your CSM?

By January 10, 2015CSM Role

A great Customer Success Manager (CSM) hire can be tricky. Why?


It is likely that you are very sure about what you want from your engineering, sales, finance, marketing, and technical support candidates. As Customer Success is an emerging discipline the CSM role is not firmly established. Expectations are high; companies know the CSM should improve customer satisfaction, reduce churn and increase revenue, but they are unclear as to how these goals will be achieved, and who to hire.

If you look across open CSM position descriptions, you will find five main types:

  1. Onboarding and ProService CSM: this CSM is tasked with getting the customer up, running, and using all features and functionality.
  2. Sales CSM: this CSM role is revenue driven, with performance measured by retention, growth, and churn reduction.
  3. Relationship CSM: this CSM is tasked with the vague work of “owning” customer relationships and customer satisfaction.
  4. Power CSM: this is a high-functioning, strategic position offered by companies with a great understanding of all a CSM can do.
  5. Catch-all CSM: this role calls for all of the above, plus the ability to provide technical support, give public presentations, repair a robot, and write code.

Companies new to the Customer Success function often post jobs for types 3 and 5, the “Relationship CSM” and the “Catch-all CSM.” If your description calls for candidates to have primarily soft skills – check-in meetings, voice of the customer, conversations, and relationships — yet concludes with hard KPIs of retention and churn, you are setting yourself up for disappointing results. If you find yourself wanting to include both “drive a truck” and “analyze data” or “write code” alongside “speak at large events,” you aren’t clear on what you need a CSM to do for your company. It’s easy for companies with immature Customer Success programs to fall into the trap of hiring for types 3 and 5, but this is an impulse that you must learn to resist.

Companies that seek types 1 and 2, the “Onboarding and ProService CSM” and the “Sales CSM,” are often trying to fill a specific need or hole in the company. The Onboarding CSM position is created with the obvious thought that getting a customer up and running is a base requirement for customer success. However, if your inclination is that your CSM should onboard above all else, look at your business model. How much technical expertise do your customer and the CSM need during onboarding? How much time do they spend? If it takes more than an hour to deploy and train customers, then deployment and training should be built into your pricing and sales process. An evolved Customer Success program will have the CSM oversee onboarding, but your CSM should not actually conduct it.

While ownership of renewal and upsell can successfully live in a Sales or a CSM function, the process and relationship between your CSM and Sales teams needs to be defined and understood by everyone: the CSM, Sales, and the customer. We see companies swing back and forth between the Relationship CSM and the Sales CSM. The Relationship CSM is reluctant to drive sales because they feel it diminishes their credibility and the Sales CSM prioritizes closing business over investing time in ongoing customer success. Both types struggle to be successful because their focus is on only a portion of the customer engagement and the subscription economy demands a wide, deep and informed view.

Let’s look instead at the high-functioning CSM model, type 4.

The Power CSM is a person with concrete skills who delivers real value to customers and real revenue to the company. For the Power CSM, sales and relationship activities are not discrete but are instead integrated into the ongoing service of connecting your company’s solution to your customers’ objectives. Totango has a great opening description of what they look for in a CSM: someone who is “able to connect-the-dots from Board-level objectives to departmental goals (KPIs and MBO’s) to business processes to how our solution is configured and implemented. And back again.” This description contains everything – relationship, sales, onboarding — so why is it “Power” and not “Catch-all?” It’s those connected dots; the Power CSM has the ability to bring it all together with meaning and value. The qualifications for such a person include business acumen, the ability to tie a solution to a strategy, and the skills to push internal teams and external customers to articulate and achieve their goals.

The first step in hiring a CSM is to know what you are looking for and why. If you are not aiming for the top with a Power CSM, reconsider your objectives.