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3 Key Skills of an Effective Customer Success Manager

This article was written in collaboration with Ben Saitz. Ben is an expert in enterprise and media services having more than 20 years of experience. He currently works at Tableau Software.

Customer Success Managers have come into their own. More and more companies either this role into an existing department, or create a new team from scratch. But, despite the popularity of the role, not everyone can come up with a clear answer to the question: “What does a Customer Success Manager do?” Companies define the role differently, with some CSMs leaning to the commercial side, while others are very deep on product knowledge and best practices.

The details vary, but, generally speaking, most CSMs will handle issues like establishing long-term relationships with the clients, taking steps to avoid churn, ensuring value realization of the company’s product or service to the client, and driving change in the client’s organization.

Wrike has had Customer Success Managers for awhile. As the company expands, the role has evolved. We currently have two different kinds of CSMs: one-to-one, and one-to-many. The one-to-one team works directly with the clients. Each CSM has a list of accounts that they are responsible for. One-to-many CSMs, as the name implies, is a more scaled offering. This team is responsible for “low-touch initiatives.” This includes delivering webinars for the clients and preparing self-learning materials such as how-to videos and collateral. The one-to-many team allows clients who do not have a dedicated CSM to get some CSM time, present their use cases, and learn best practices.

Customer Success Managers have different backgrounds. Some CSMs have a background in consulting, while others worked in sales, customer support, or account management. Unfortunately, there is no degree in Customer Success. Also, as it’s a blend of multiple skills, you can hire CSMs from all sorts of backgrounds.

To be a good CSM, you must have strong communication and listening skills. Good people skills are a must when helping your client solve a technical problem, providing your expertise on market trends, or preparing the forecast for the next quarter.

Today more and more companies are adding or expanding CSM offerings. A few ago, having a team of CSMs was a “nice to have.” Now it is viewed as a necessity. SaaS software is easier to deploy, thus easier to churn. Which means more and more companies are looking to provide CSM offerings to partner with customers to ensure value realization.

The Customer Success Manager role continues to evolve, so CSMs must update their skills if they want to stay relevant and offer fresh and meaningful services.. Here are the skills CSMs require what you can do to improve yours.

Skill #1: Communication

The most essential skill for every Customer Success Manager is communication. This involves active listening, presentation, and consulting. It’s difficult to overemphasize the importance of good communication. Gather information from the clients on their pain points, understand what solutions will work for them, present the company’s products or services in a favorable way, and react to negative feedback in an effective and productive manner.

Of course, you don’t become a communication expert by reading books and articles. You can pick up some tips and approaches from those books, but mainly it’s practice, practice, practice. You can also attend a couple of training sessions on public speaking (Dale Carnegie, Toastmasters, to name a few) and negotiations.

Some tips to keep in mind:

  • It’s more important what the listener needs to hear than what you know. Communicating is about sharing ideas, so make sure you start with what the other group/person wants or needs to know.
  • Altitude. Make sure you’re flying at the right height. For example, if you’re with someone senior, stay out of the weeds. If you’re with someone in a more-detailed role, such as tech or product, avoid high-level generalities.
  • Pause, take a breath. It’s important to pause and let the listener digest what you’re saying. It also allows you to pick up on visual clues to ensure your message is being heard and received.
  • Keep it structured — lay out where you’re going to go, or take a moment to recap what you just said. It’s all about them understanding.
  • End with a strong bottom line. The goal isn’t to say more; it’s to convey ideas.

Skill #2: Change Management

The second skill highly important for a Customer Success Manager is the art of change management. CSMs are usually the drivers of change in the client’s organization. This may range from behaviors, tools, processes, or even metrics. Perhaps the customer was using a competitor’s product or service, and you need to play the role of consultant to help them transfer to your company’s solution. That may require training, support, and reinforcement.

As a Customer Success Manager, you don’t need to be an expert in every change management methodology. But it’s a good practice to, at least, understand the basic concepts of any sound methodology. This allows you to offer a variety of different solutions to your clients depending on their needs.

There are several ways you can improve your change management skills. You can read books and articles on different methodologies, or you can take a course at a local college or university. Professional events, where you will be able to learn different approaches for driving the change and study best practices, are also extremely helpful

A few important notes about managing change:

  • Start with “why.” Why is change needed? To increase profit? Efficiency? Customer experience? Collaboration? There has to be a why, or the change is likely to fail.
  • Enable the change. Do people know the details of change? When is it coming, what training is needed, how to deal with issues?
  • Track the change. Make sure you’re able to establish success criteria and measure progress — 100% adoption of a new tool, go-to-market processes that are 20% more efficient, or a 20% savings on project management time. If you can define success, then you can drive towards it or make adjustments as needed.
  • Change is hard. It will require lots of planning, communications, and crisp execution, but getting it down is vital to your role.

Additional materials: ADKAR

Skill #3: Product knowledge

This may sound obvious, but as it’s critical as a CSM to know the product inside and out. Product knowledge can be divided into 2 subskills: knowing the product’s (or service’s) specifics and functionalities, and understanding common use cases and best practices.

Knowing a great deal about the capabilities of your product allows you to communicate confidently with a client. This will set you up to guide your client, responsively, when they come to you for input. In your role as a trusted advisor, the more you know, the more value you provide to your customer.

Always remember, what your clients really need: solutions to their problems, not just a set of product functionalities. The more use cases you can present and the more workarounds you can come up with, the wider range of the client’s problems you can address with your product or service.

If your company has some product manuals or a help center, read and reread the articles until you remember the majority of the information. And if you don’t have any help resources or product materials (yes, that sometimes happens), you can take the initiative and develop them from scratch.

You can also set up regular meetings with your fellow CSMs to exchange best practices. Don’t forget to create a shared document so you and members or your team will have ongoing access to the ideas.

As a CSM, it’s vital that you share knowledge of your products and the solutions they offer in a clear and relevant way. Your success is directly tied to using your knowledge to help customers.

Some product tips to keep in mind:

  • Product knowledge requires context. How does your client use your product? What problems are they trying to solve? Always start with the customer need/problem and work backward.
  • Understand your client’s business. Do they have regulations they need to adhere to? Are they in financial distress? This knowledge will set you up to be a very powerful ally.
  • Set up a Google News alert for your key clients as well as competitors. Make sure to include anything relevant to helping you excel at your job.
  • Spend time knowing the roadmap — and the why’s. Make sure the PM team, regularly shares the roadmap and what’s being built and, also , what isn’t being built.
  • Understand the positioning of your product in the market. Why does it win or lose? What products are better or worse? These insights will help you navigate your client discussions from a position of knowledge.

These are just three of the wide range of skills that Customer Success Managers need to to be successful. But they are essential, and improving them will significantly increase the value of CSMs.



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Artem Gurnov

Artem Gurnov

Head of Global Customer Engagement @Wrike