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Do CSMs Need to be Experts?

Showing customers love requires a diverse toolbox, chock full of technical and soft skills. From onboarding through advocacy, supporting our clients on their journey is a team sport, and one that requires coordination, technical acumen and domain expertise.

So this begs the question - if CSMs are the front-line client champion, do they need to be experts? And if so, what kind of "expert" do they need to be? And, if the answer is no, what the heck should a CSM be doing?

TL;DR - it depends. Every product and customer journey is a bit different. When you're building your team, there is no one-size-fits-all approach which consistently converts product into business outcomes.

In this article, I'll outline a few principles that can help determine:

1. What skills a CSM should have 2. What business outcomes can be expected by adopting certain CSM profiles 3. What non-CSM support is required to deliver outrageous customer value, retention, growth, and advocacy.


Principle 1: Meet Customers Where They Are


Let us say you need a chair. You call your friendly, neighborhood chair company, and the sales rep confidently tells you, "I can get you a chair". You arrange a time to pick up your new chair from the closest Chair Store location.


You arrive at the specified Chair Store, and to your confusion, find yourself in the middle of a woodworking shop. The salesperson comes out and greets you, and assures you that this woodworking shop is top-of-the-line. You won't find higher quality wood anywhere, and they have the latest chair-making technology. Take a look through through our testimonials, he says, and have at it - make yourself a chair, he says.


While this analogy is a bit extreme, it highlights many customer challenges - cold code doesn't solve a problem on its own. CSMs need to be the bridge that closes this gap between pain-point and technology.


If you work with SMB clients, its common for customers to not posses internal resources or expertise to deploy your solution on their own - lack of resources or expertise is likely the reason they bought in the first place. In these cases, CSMs do need to be expert guides and teachers, coaching clients on best practice and technical implementation.


It's likely that SMB accounts are not large enough to support both CSM and Solutions teams, so look for jack-of-all-trades that can deliver value. In these cases, providing an awesome experience is usually enough to drive renewals and growth, even with CSMs that may not be fully-formed relationship managers. Look for lifetime learners, and people truly passionate about a customer experience to excel in these roles.


Enterprise accounts are a bit different. To reference the woodworking analogy, enterprise clients are likely master craftsman, and have probably built chairs a lot nicer than anything you can offer. Rather than asking for a single chair, they may come to you for trying to build 100 chairs. If you turn them loose in your figurative woodworking shop, they may make 50, 60, 70 or 80 chairs, but they won't get to 100.


In these cases, CSMs better serve as quarterbacks - working between client stakeholders and internal Solutions, Support, and Product teams to create a seamless journey. Project and Change management skills are key, and being able to speak the language of your stakeholders is a huge plus. For change management, Prosci's ADKAR is a nifty system for folks to master.


Beyond being PMs and Agents of Change, its not uncommon to hire enterprise CSMs who are domain experts. In many cases, they may have even performed the role of your main users or decision makers in the past. This gives them a huge leg-up, knowing what is needed for successful deployment.


A quick aside - in both cases, firms should explore formal paid Professional Services to supplement client value and drive incremental revenue. In my experience, customers are happy to pay for expert support, and a successful professional services team can increase ARPA and decrease churn.


Principle 2: Build Backward from Business Outcomes


While Customer Success was born from a need to retain clients in recurring-revenue models, "Customer Success 2.0" focuses heavily on growth and advocacy. Jason Lemkin of SaaStr and Echosign fame refers to this as "Second Order Revenue". Second Order Revenue comes from referrals, as well as key stakeholders leaving your client firm, and adopting your solution at their new firm.


Repeat Founders and Serial Entrepreneurs are finding its never too early to invest in second-order revenue. As the barrier-to-entry in SaaS becomes increasingly low, investors are looking for more than product differentiation. Securing funding and growing multiples requires strong financial metrics.


While there are many things to look at, the golden ration is CAC/LTV. How much does it cost to get a customer, and how much will they pay you? As LTV is largely a function of service delivery, and is captured in Principle 1, lets focus on CAC.


Marketing and sales is expensive, and while it is necessary to drive rapid growth, the nets and spears of GTM have their limitations. Mass outreach may capture a high volume of leads, but conversion to revenue tends to be slow. On the other side, 1:1 enterprise outreach requires expensive manpower, and has long sales cycles (6-12 months).


Compare this to warm referrals, which may have close rates of 80%+, short sales cycles, and some built-in network effect driving advocacy (9/10 SV firms recommend your solution!)


Outside of referrals and closed personal networks, customer advocacy at meet-ups and reviews on sites like G2 and Capterra can drive inbounds which close at higher rates, and have much shorter sales cycle.


For both driving referrals, as well as referrals, look to CSMs with experience in relationship management. Those with marketing/sales backgrounds may make excellent candidates here.


Principle 3: Diversity is Key


Admittedly, both aforementioned principles are overly optimistic. People are unique snowflakes, each with their own set of preferences and skills. Hiring someone that has everything is unrealistic.


Filling your teams with folks from different backgrounds, with different skill sets, allows you to approach accounts from a team oriented perspective. This makes it much easier (and cheaper) to fill talent gaps, and provides amazing opportunities for your CSMs to collaborate and learn from each other (and from customers).


Anecdotally, I think diversity is to be preferred, even if you could hire masters-of-all. Having clear roles, and being able to introduce different team members as SMEs in a specific function or niche, is easy to understand for customers, and positions your brand as customer obsessed, and chock full of experts.


Closing Thought


Customer Success is still really young. I think it makes sense for teams to play the long game, and experiment with service delivery models. Experiments shouldn't be a shot-in-the-dark, and I think awesome teams will form by doing some design thinking around the problems you solve, and how those relate to your business model.


Lastly, it doesn't take much scale to build a diverse team. One of the most successful teams I ever led was only 5 people, and included an Account Manager, a Support Guru, a Marketing Whiz and two Creatives. They crushed it, and it showed in the numbers in a big way. When you find your secret sauce, its obvious, and you don't need fancy attribution models for everyone to see.


Plus, work was fun. And isn't that the point?

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