9 Key Traits of a Customer Success Manager

Characteristics and interview questions for your next CSM hire

Great Customer Success Managers can come from a variety of professional backgrounds. For this reason it can often be difficult to determine the traits that will make one successful in the role.

Below are 9 traits that I’ve observed in the top B2B SaaS CSMs I’ve worked with, and screening questions you can ask for each. It’s not so important to me that CSMs have experience being a CSM. But it is important that they can describe where they have exercised each trait in their career.

1. Energy & Mental Fortitude

CSMs will need enthusiasm and a positive outlook that is infectious and irrepressible when times get tough. It’s often said that life is 90% how you react to it and a good CSM embodies this. We know for a fact that times will get tough. Products will fail, stakeholders will leave our clients, and we will overset expectations. CSMs must have the grit to turn these challenges into triumphs.

Interview Question: Describe a time when you were in a tough spot with a client. Tell me about the situation, how long it lasted and what you did personally to resolve. What was the outcome?

2. Relational Intelligence

It’s critical to form individualized connections and quickly establish rapport with customers. Great CSMs have deep emotional intelligence and they can move others to action where necessary. They take time to build new friendships with clients and coworkers alike. Relationships can often help bridge product and service gaps and buy you time to resolve issues.

Interview Question: Describe a professional challenge that you’ve had to overcome where you had to lean on your interpersonal relationships to get through it. What was the outcome?

3. Organizational Skills

A good candidate can balance the needs of many without becoming overwhelmed. They follow through on the commitments they make. They utilize existing processes (e.g. Product Support, Billing, Sales, etc.) effectively, and have well-defined personal systems and habits for prioritizing and completing tasks.

Interview Question: Describe the method you use to organize your weekly workload. What tools do you use?

4. Team Orientation

CSMs realize that client success is a team sport, and routinely work across internal departments. It takes Product, Engineering, Client Services, Support, Sales and Marketing to deliver a compelling customer experience. Ideally your candidates will have background in one or more of these areas. At a minimum they should be able to communicate well with each of these groups.

Interview Question: Describe a time when you had to work with resources outside of your own department to address a client’s need. What was the situation and what role did you play in the resolution?

5. Confidence

Great CSMs are unafraid to step into situations where key information is not yet available. They understand that connecting with a customer and listening is more important than having all the answers. This trait is especially helpful when CSMs are assigned to new accounts or territories. Customer success managers have to be courageous.

Interview Question: Describe a situation when you had to handle a customer request without complete knowledge of the context. How did you approach the conversation and what was the outcome?

6. Discernment

It’s critical for CSMs to separate customers’ needs from their wants. They must often choose the right “battles to fight” within our company and with clients. Clients will ask for very specific changes to your product that may not align with your vision of the future.

A good CSM will dig into the details to understand why the customer is making the request. Understanding of the root need, the CSM can determine how the request aligns with the current product vision before engaging more scarce resources such as product management or engineering.

Interview Question: Have you ever had to escalate a feature request or bug to your product team? How did you determine requirements and assess the impact on the client to justify the escalation? What was the outcome?

7. Proactivity

CSMs should understand how to gather and assimilate information to prepare for key interactions. Customer data is often strewn across a multitude of systems. It can take time to gather billing, support and product usage data to gain a full context of a customer. For this reason a good CSM will plan for key meetings well ahead of time.

Interview Question: Describe a time when you had to gather information from multiple, disconnected systems to prepare for a meeting.

8 . Domain Expertise (or ability to get it)

It’s increasingly important for SaaS companies to become thought leaders in the markets they serve. Customer Success Managers can be a big part of this strategy. This means hiring CSMs who have experience doing the jobs our clients do. There’s nothing more powerful than communicating best practices derived from personal experience with customers.

Hiring industry experts at the rate necessary may not scale for your business. And, we also know there are many other traits that make a CSM effective — consider the list above!

If you cannot find candidates with the mix of traits and experience you need, the next best solution is to hire individuals who can and will immerse themselves in the domain. They will join online forums, engage with the community on social media, and will build their personal brand around the market domain you serve (note, this also applies for Sales).

Interview Question: Describe the last time you had to learn about a new subject matter area. How did you begin learning and what resources did you utilize and in which forums did you participate?

9. Trusted Advisor Status

Finally, the best CSMs in the world will earn trusted advisor status with their clients. Trusted advisors build trust and confidence of individuals around them by speaking their truth whether the news is good or bad. They gain credibility by backing up assertions with data, and seek to build long-term relationships versus securing quick wins.

If you think this sounds like a management consultant, you’d be right. However, the challenge of a B2B SaaS CSM is greater. In most SaaS companies CSMs must earn and maintain trusted advisor status at scale via phone or video conference. They don’t have the luxury of regular onsite interaction, and in fact, many CSMs will never meet their clients face to face!

Interview Question: Describe a time when a client came to you with a strategy question. How did you respond?

Hiring CSMs can be challenging, especially in the early days. But you can find candidates with relevant professional experience that will absolutely crush it. Carefully define the role for your company, e.g. on boarding focused, up-sell focused, client satisfaction focused…, and hire for energy, attitude and adaptability. You’ll need all three as your company grows and your CSM role scales.

What works for your business may be different from mine. I’d love to hear what you look for in Customer Success Manager candidates. Please leave a comment or let’s talk on twitter @jaynathan.