The customer success manager (CSM) role is relatively new to the market. There are now more candidates with relevant experience compared to three to five years ago, and the demand for this position is still larger than the supply. This means that a lot of candidates with experience from other customer-facing roles are being considered. But hiring a candidate is just the first step in a challenging journey of getting them up to speed and making them a valuable addition to your CS team.
The onboarding process is continuously evolving — we test new approaches to identify what’s working and what’s not, and create best practices. In this article, we list recommendations on training new hires of a customer success team. This isn’t a step-by-step guide on onboarding, but a collection of tips and best practices that worked for us. I’d like to thank Elena Burdenko from the training team and Maria Novoselova from the enablement team for sharing their experiences.
1. Focus on value, not on features
The first and most important aspect of onboarding a new hire in customer success is that the focus should be on the value that the customers will get from the product, not the features. While every CSM should be a product expert, their primary job is helping the clients address their business problems with the product. Clients don’t really care about whether the problem will be solved with feature A or feature B — they just need the solution. This is why it’s essential to develop solution-based thinking during the onboarding process.
I developed a simple but efficient exercise for my team to practice this way of thinking. We sit together (in-office or via Zoom) and I point at a random area of the workspace and ask, “How can this help our clients solve their problems?” My team brainstorms an answer that highlights the value of that part of the product. It can be a little difficult at first, but the more you practice, the easier it becomes for your team to quickly come up with a solution.
2. Encourage using the right terminology
For customers learning how to use a new product, consistency is king. Your team should use the same terminology in all the resources that the customers can potentially leverage — from help center articles to live chats with a CSM. In Wrike we use the same key phrases to describe the main building blocks of our platform (e.g., “a task is the main actionable unit” and “a space is a central hub for the team’s work”). We highlight the importance of using these phrases to new hires and explain where to find them.
This doesn’t mean that every phrase CSMs use is written in stone. Every team member has their own style, and that’s great! At the same time, being consistent with terminology guarantees that the customers will understand product-related explanations regardless of the employee they talk to.
3. Support self-learning behavior
CSMs need to be able to find the necessary information on their own. So the training team should encourage self-learning behavior instead of explaining everything from A to Z. During product training, one of the first tips we give to new team hires is: “If you can’t find the answer in our help resources, test it yourself in the product!” That approach proved to work really well — employees dive deep into the problem and experiment with different approaches to solve it. Sometimes they even come up with a new approach that can be used by other CSMs when communicating with clients. Of course, the training team would explain anything that’s confusing, but only after the CSM has tried to find the information themselves.
4. Practice effective questioning
The most effective way for CSMs to learn the customers’ challenges is by asking questions. It’s a somewhat common opinion that the ability to ask questions is natural and doesn’t need to be improved upon. I strongly disagree with that. One can be an amazing product expert and be aware of all the features and functionalities, but the purpose of getting and maintaining that knowledge is to help customers with addressing their business challenges. And understanding these challenges is a direct consequence of asking questions.
One of the most common questions we ask during our mock calls is: “In your opinion, would you be able to help the customer better if you knew more about their situation and asked more questions?” We also have a cheat sheet with useful questions.
5. Visualize the learning curve
It’s much easier to make progress when you can see the whole path from beginning to end. When new CS team members start working in Wrike, an onboarding project is created for them. They see all the onboarding steps, which are divided by day and week, so for every working day there’s a clear to-do list of what they need to learn.
Every step contains the necessary links to the help resources: e-learning, help center articles, tutorial videos, and more. New hires shouldn’t have to search for the materials’ there’s a single source of truth for everything in the onboarding project. An additional benefit is that the information stays in the account even after the onboarding process is finished, so the new hire can return to these materials and revise them if necessary.
6. Use different types of educational materials
There’s no single best format for educational materials. Some people prefer thoughtful reading while others prefer videos. It’s important to prepare materials in different formats, so new hires have options. Here at Wrike we use a combination of help center articles, tutorial videos, e-learning courses, and webinars. Information isn’t simply repeated in all these materials — they all have their own highlights. So, for example, an article provides general understanding of a certain feature, a tutorial video provides more specific instructions and details, and a webinar provides best practices for using that feature.
7. Break the product demo into logical pieces and practice them separately
We came up with another exercise that proved to be efficient. At Wrike every CSM needs to be capable of delivering an efficient product demo/training, so customers can get maximum value from the product. We broke the demo into several logical components with each covering a specific area of the product. We start practicing the first component in the early stages of the onboarding process. More and more components are added throughout onboarding, so the CSM will feel comfortable with delivering the whole demo by the end.
When practicing each of these steps, trainers and experienced colleagues should provide extended feedback on both what a team member is saying and how they’re saying it. Every component is practiced so many times that when a new CSM is delivering the first demos/training to customers, they’ll sound as professional as an experienced colleague
8. Call shadowing needs to include “homework”
Shadowing calls is a key component of the onboarding process for new customer success managers. They get the opportunity to see (and listen to) what real customer conversations look like. While the presence of trainees on these calls is useful, the value increases dramatically if they have a clear list of things they need to pay attention to. This list can include the following:
- What questions does the CSM ask, and what information do they get?
- How much time is dedicated to each topic?
- How does the CSM address the customer’s pain point and confirm that the solutions being offered would work for the customer?
- What next steps are being planned?
After the call it’s important for the new hire to meet with their trainer or manager and share insights, as well as confirm that everything is clear.
9. Prepare real client examples for the mock calls
During mock calls, the new CSM gets to apply everything they’ve learned during the training to work. In my opinion, mock calls need to be as close to reality as possible. Every time I have an interesting call with a client, I take notes and use them as examples for a mock call. I divide the cases into three categories by level of complexity. I also keep in mind that the business situations in mock calls aren’t very specific and reflect at least some of the customer’s common challenges. This allows the new hire to directly apply the experience they get during mock calls to real calls.
10. Assign an experienced CSM as a mentor/buddy to each new hire
In addition to the help and guidance each new hire gets from their trainers and manager, it’s a good idea to ask an experienced CSM to serve as their mentor, or “buddy.” The mentor should have recurring meetings with the new hire to answer any questions, clarify things that may be causing confusion, and help to get additional practice in the areas where the person still feels uncertain. Having that support from the very start helps decrease the number of early, common mistakes.
I hope that these recommendations were helpful and can make the process of onboarding a new CSM in your team more pleasant and fun!