9 ways that being a client success manager made me a better product manager

Lessons from a client success role, and how they translate into product management .

Today I am a product manager at Zoon.ru, a website that helps consumers find the best local businesses and service providers, and I couldn’t have landed this role without first gaining experience in client success. It’s common to hear about people transitioning to PM roles from marketing, design, and development, so I think it’s about time we talked about transitioning to product management from a customer support role. So here is my story: the lessons from my journey and the reasons I think there should be more people with my background in product management.

About 3 years ago I was working at a movie streaming company with the title of User Experience Manager and a role similar to that of a client success manager. The position meant being the advocate for user needs inside the company and supporting the users through various channels — email, phone, social networks, in-person interviews.

I was genuinely good at talking to customers, I could find a way to talk to anyone and get to the root of the problem, and make sure that even if we couldn’t fix the experience with the product the user knew that we cared and were doing everything in order to not make the same mistakes again. There were times when I asked our users to help us figure out what was going on with the product and test something, and convince them to help us time and time again.

I once spent an hour on the phone explaining step-by-step to a user how to pay for a movie and start watching it on a Smart TV. He told me he was old and it was hard for him, but he genuinely wanted to. From a purely business and profitability standpoint, one might have argued that this was not the most productive thing I could have done with that hour. But by taking the time to co-experience onboarding with the client, me and the whole team that witnessed it developed empathy for our users’ struggles.

Helping people felt good, but I wanted to have more of an impact. I wanted to make it so that users stopped needing my help in the first place.

The goal set for me at the time was to create an efficient customer support system. As I was gathering the issues that users experienced, testing and categorizing them, it became clear that we did not need better support — we needed to make changes to the product.

That’s how I gained my first product experience. I went over the issues that I found and came up with a a big redesign of the Help section which we turned into a FAQ section and a few minor tweaks in product that would help the user contextually. I worked closely with our designer and developers. It was incredibly difficult but it also felt good. After the update, user inquiries reduced by about 50%, and I was absolutely ecstatic.

Fast forward and I see the posting for a PM position with Sports.ru (one of the biggest Russian-speaking sports media). The description seemed perfect — it was exactly what I wanted to do. On my application, I highlighted the experiences I had that were relevant to product management. That got me in the door. During the interview, I focused on how, through my daily interactions with users, I had already been doing key product management functions throughout my career. I guess, that was what got me the job.

My client success experience continued and continues to help me every day on the job. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t benefit from being more proficient in engineering or design, but here are 9 ways that my client success background helps me every day:

  1. Empathy. The core of the CS job is to help the user and make her happy. It can’t be done without empathy. And good products can’t be created without understanding user needs. Feeling the pain is paramount.
  2. Advocacy. As a client success manager, you are far from a position of power or authority. I had to learn to advocate for change anyway, and that’s really applicable to product managers who find that they need to lead via influence instead of authority.
  3. Communication. Both customer support managers and product managers must communicate and collaborate all the time: explaining time and time again to different audiences, listening to the stakeholders, and getting to the root of their needs.
  4. Problem solving. Despite being an overused cliche during interviews, problem-solving is a critical skill to develop. It’s also pretty much the central focus of customer support and success, and is a daily aspect of product management.
  5. Learning. Accumulating information and building your knowledge base is central to client success — you can’t be caught on the phone with a user and not have the answer to their question. Similarly, the PM has to do the same. And not only accumulate that information but also leverage it to solve problems, plan ahead, and make decisions.
  6. No bullshit. When a user says something that doesn’t make sense or looks like a lie, believe it or not, it in fact may be a lie! I’m not saying that the users are untrustworthy, but they are people who make mistakes and sometimes they may say untrue things, or you may interpret what they say in the completely wrong way. The same goes for all people, including teammates. And that makes you learn to ask the questions: Why? And how so?
  7. Open-mindedness. With a CSM background, you don’t know what the perfect engineering or design solution looks like. And that is a good thing. Because CSMs primarily focus on the problem space rather than the solution space, they become product managers that are totally open to suggestions and new ideas.
  8. Saying no. In customer support, it’s important to understand that we cannot satisfy all user cravings. We learn to recognize when a user is asking way too much. And we learn how to say no clearly but without offending them. As the saying goes: the most important thing is not to know what to build, but to know what not to build.
  9. Resilience. It gets harder to stay strong and face criticism when you transition to product management, but you get a lot of experience doing it as a CSM. Rather than answering for a product someone else built, you’re now answering for something you did. As a customer support manager and as a PM you learn to differentiate between pain-inflicted feedback that you need to empathize with and the haters gonna hate feedback that you ignore. You learn not to take it personally. You feel pain and learn to turn it into fuel for change.

It’s been two years since I transitioned into product management, and still not a day goes by where I don’t lean on my client success skillset. I believe that considering product managers from diverse backgrounds, among them customer success, is paramount for organizations that want to build a solid and balanced product team. And if you’re someone with a client success background and are interested in product management, know that you’re not far away. And every day in client success is incredibly valuable.

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