How I made my pivot into Customer Success

If you were to tell me in 2013 that by 2016 I would be able to start a career in an industry and role in which I had zero experience, I wouldn’t have thought it was possible.

My first job out of college was a rotational retail management program with Macy’s flagship store in San Francisco. I gained invaluable experience coaching front-line sales teams and operating the store-line sales function of the retail giant, but being in the Bay Area where technology is at the forefront of rapid change and innovation, I wanted to be a part of this wave.

After a few months of job searching, I found an exciting opportunity at a 20-person startup called Sookasa in their first ever customer-facing role. I was the jack of all trades there with responsibilities spanning sales demos, onboarding and implementation, and technical support. This opportunity gave me a tremendous amount of exposure to the inner workings of a young SaaS startup and experience in managing customer relationships.

When I was ready to move on from Sookasa in May 2016, I knew that my experience and passion in running all aspects of the customer experience—including product onboarding and technical support in a fast-moving high-growth startup environment—was highly relevant and I wanted to continue to leverage these skills in my next role.

I took on a Customer Success role at Rainforest QA soon after, which was a great fit because both the team and business was growing rapidly and there was a huge potential to shape the future of the team. My teammates were looking for a customer-facing generalist with experience at an early-stage SaaS startup and a self-starter who could grow with the team and thrive in a dynamic environment—this was the perfect match.

Challenges in this career move

Making the transition from a Retail Management and a User Operations role to a much more defined Customer Success role was not without challenges. If you’ve tried moving into a customer-facing role (especially for a technical product or audience) in the SaaS space before, I’m sure you’ve come across some of the same challenges I had encountered:

  • Lack of a social network: most of my close friends and colleagues went for jobs in the ABCs (Accounting, Banking, and Consulting), so I didn’t have many resources within my first degree connections to talk to or draw experiences from.
  • Actual experience “on the job”: because I had no formal experience as a Customer Success Manager, I had to connect the dots for many potential employers on how my prior experience is relevant and are highly transferrable skills.
  • Lack of technical expertise: not only did I have make the case for why I’m qualified for the CSM role, I also had to show that I have the technical aptitude to quickly grasp the product, customer, and the space.
  • Unfamiliarity with the business operations: of how your role as CSM and other departments (sales, product, engineering, finance) worked together added another layer of complexity to an already unfamiliar world.

How I made the pivot

Despite the challenges I came across during my job search, there are ways to equip yourself to increase the knowledge you have an to reduce the unknowns. Here’s how I prepared myself for the transition:

  • Absorb industry knowledge and content: there are so many free online resources, blog posts, and podcasts in the Customer Success space to learn from. Subscribed to newsletters from industry leaders (ie: Gainsight, Totango, Amity, etc) and download Podcasts (The Customer Success Podcast, The Customer Success Channel, etc) — I made sure I was learning whenever I can.
  • Attend meet-ups: I was regularly attending SF Customer Success Meetups to connect with and learn from industry leaders on how they tackled common challenges at their companies and chat with like-minded in the CS field. I found these so valuable that I even hosted one at Rainforest QA last January! :)
SF CSM meetup I hosted at Rainforest QA

Connect with CS peers and mentors: everyone I reached out to was incredibly generous with their time and willing to share their industry experiences. Conversations with my peers and those with more industry experience were invaluable to my continued learning as a CSM.

  • Get familiar with the company and product: this is the one aspect you have total control over — get to know the company, the product, and the customer. Go to the company website, take a look at how the company positions itself through its messaging, download and use the product (if available), read the whitepapers and case studies to learn about the customer experience and value they derive from the product.
  • Read job descriptions: Because Customer Success was a relatively new concept to many companies (as compared to sales), the expectations and responsibilities of a CSM varied as did the titles (some called it CS Executives, Account Managers, Account Executives, Relationship Manager, etc). Each bullet of the JDs gave me insight into the kind of candidate the company was looking—is the CSM’s role primarily to ensure product adoption, onboarding / implementation, revenue growth, or a combination?

The nature of my CS role continues to evolve because the industry is so young and dynamic. How I continue to equip myself with current industry knowledge is through many of the same tactics that I’ve mentioned above. The role of the Customer Success Manager has become a hot topic as we’ve moved towards an increased subscription-based economy where the delivery of a product is no longer through an on-premise solution but through delivery of a software. Let’s explore more of that in another blog post.

Until then—I’d love to hear about how you’ve made your pivot into Customer Success.