What Makes a Great Customer Success Leader?

August 2, 2017 Kristen Hayer

What Makes a Great Customer Success Leader?

As the field of customer success grows and develops, more and more management jobs and executive roles are opening up. It is absolutely critical that customer success managers who want to move into these positions start developing strong management skills. Being a terrific CSM isn't enough to make you a great leader.
 


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Many customer success leaders are “home grown”, especially in the startups we work with.  These professionals are top-notch CSMs that have helped get their company’s customer success efforts off the ground.  However, in order for these leaders to develop and scale with the business, they need to pick up some new skills.  If you want to grow into a Director or VP of Customer Success, make sure you’ve got (or build) skills in these 5 areas:


MANAGEMENT

Being a great CSM doesn’t automatically make you a great manager of other CSMs.  You’ll need to pick up some new skills to keep motivation high and turnover low.  The biggest shift should be in your perspective:  Your role is now to help other people succeed, in their own way and their own time.  If you’re a top performer it can be really tough to let go of being a “doer” and shift to serving your team members by giving them the coaching and resources they need to succeed.  Don’t worry – if they shine, you shine too.  That said, there is a fine line between coaching and micromanaging.  My favorite book for new managers is The 12 Elements of Great Managing (Wagner/Hartner).


ANALYTICS

When you’re a leader, there is no room for excuses in analytics.  Don’t know what to measure?  There are countless articles and blogs on the KPIs for success teams.  Don’t have great data?  Figure out what you want to measure and put some manual data collection points in place.  It only takes a few months of solid customer data to figure out the areas you need to dig in on, and if you explain that to your executive team they will generally give you that time.  Need better tools?  Work with the tools you have for now, and make it crystal clear to the rest of your leadership team which tools you need and what you’ll be able to deliver once you have them.  Not comfortable with spreadsheets? Do your career a favor and take a Lynda class or two.  Your finance team will thank you.  Speaking of which…


FINANCE

You need to know how to read financial reports, build a budget, and interpret business models.  I’ll admit, financial reports are not my favorite.  However, they are what your board of directors uses to understand the overall health of your business.  You need to know how your team impacts financial reports, both in terms of costs and revenue.  Additionally, you should own your own budget.  Hopefully you have some experience with managing a budget in terms of your personal finances: Doing this for a team is the same but on a larger scale.  Business models are a little tricky, and generally involve some serious spreadsheet chops (see Lynda.com above!)  If you didn’t go to business school, or you’re unsure in any of these areas, book a meeting with someone on your finance team.  They will generally be happy to explain the financial details of your organization.


SELLING

I’m using the term selling in its broadest sense; persuading someone to do the thing you’d like them to do.  As a senior customer success leader, you’ll be selling all day long.  You’ll need to be able to advocate for your team to other executives and your board of directors, convincing them that your initiatives are credible, critical and profitable.  You’ll also need to sell company initiatives to your own team.  Why is it important that the company invest in the platform instead of fixing bugs that are impacting customers right now?  You’ll have to be able to get your team to support decisions that are in the best long-term interests of the organization, even when they negatively impact clients in the short-term.  Finally, you’ll need to be able to sell all of these ideas to customers, which leads me to…


ESCALATIONS

When you’re the senior success leader, the buck stops with you.  Or it should.  It’s your responsibility to do everything you can to keep the client from moving beyond you on your org chart.  Luckily, I’ve found that most of the time customers really just need to hear a new voice, with a better title, in order to calm down and rationally problem-solve a given situation.  You’ll need to develop creative problem-solving, negotiation and communication skills to get through some of these difficult conversations.  Worst-case scenario, if you know the customer is going to escalate beyond you, be confident enough to give your CEO a heads up and some background on the situation so they aren’t blind-sided.


With these new skills, a CSM should be able to successfully make the transition from front-line rep to senior leader.  Companies need to invest in new leaders, and not assume that being great in a role makes someone great at leading others in the same role.  That said, CSMs who want to progress in their career need to take responsibility for learning these key skills so that they can be the top-notch leader their team needs.

This post was originally published on The Success League's blog.

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About the Author

Kristen Hayer

Kristen Hayer is the founder & CEO of The Success League, a consulting firm focused on customer success. Services include developing metrics and goals, assessing customer touch-points, selecting technology, building and training teams, and designing playbooks. Prior to founding The Success League, Kristen built and led award-winning teams for Jazz, VerticalResponse and Ascentis. Over the past 20 years she has been a sales, marketing and customer success leader, primarily working with early stage tech companies. Kristen has her BA from Seattle Pacific University and her MBA from the University of Washington.

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