After spending 8 years trying to find a fulfilling career, going from Engineer to Sales Rep, with a bit of Marketing in between, Nils Vinje finally had his “Aha!” moment with Customer Success. He first started as a Customer Success Manager and progressed to Manager, Director, and finally VP of Customer Success in less than 2.5 years. The thing is, Nils wasn’t just in the right place at the right time, so he knows very well what obstacles stand in the way of professionals trying to make it in Customer Success.
When it comes to career paths, Customer Success suffers from its lack of maturity, the wide variety of backgrounds its professionals bring with them, and the singularity of each company in implementing and managing its own organization. Are you or your employees able to look back and identify what was accomplished over the last 3 months, and does everyone know where they are going and how to get there? We had the chance to sit down with Nils to discuss the main obstacles standing in the way of Customer Success professionals when it comes to career development.
What are the main challenges standing in the way of Customer Success professionals when developing their career paths?
When I first started in Customer Success, I realized very fast that I would plateau at one point. When I first got the job, I had to learn the ins and outs of the technical product we were selling, I had to learn the back end, the SDK, how data was stored and how it was processed, how we calculated metrics, everything. It was exciting, but once that was done… there wasn’t much more to learn. I was so well aligned with the role that I already knew how to build relationships, set expectations, and deliver value to my customers, so I knew the plateau would come earlier rather than later for me.
This is the same for everyone in Customer Success, we all have a personal “shelf life” within a specific role, a span of time during which we are fully engaged, until we stop learning and hit that plateau. Customer Success Managers will realize that, but it’s very critical for managers and organizations to understand this as well.
Do you think this is singular to Customer Success professionals? Is career development different in Sales or Marketing?
Absolutely, Customer Success is very new and consequently, there aren’t defined career paths to follow. There is a huge lack of knowledge when it comes to what Customer Success does, and a lack of definition when it comes to skills and backgrounds. Everyone’s story is different, and there is a wide variety in how companies do Customer Success. In Sales or Marketing, the organizations have been structured, running, and scaled a million times. Many professionals go through approximately the same route: SDR, account executive, manager, regional director, VP, etc. The main performance indicator is how many times you’ve exceeded your quota, and this translates between companies. Because Customer Success as an industry lacks maturity, that defined path doesn’t exist and it makes things tricky when it comes to planning your career and envisioning development.
The meaning of Customer Success tends to be different at each organization, is that an issue for career development as well?
Of course, a CSM in an early stage startup might be in charge of everything post-sale: onboarding, training, engagement, adoption… but at the company next door, someone’s focus might solely be onboarding, and both have the exact same title: Customer Success Manager. Because of this, the traditional “CSM to Senior CSM to Manager” doesn’t apply. In many cases, your company will not define that path for you, and if they do, it shouldn't be taken as the only source of truth. That’s why it’s very important for individuals to take ownership of their careers and to know what they can do to define their career path themselves. Some fortunate people hit the right company, at the right time, with the right growth, and the right skillset, and things go smoothly and they go up the ladder without thinking about it. For 99% of us, we’ll need to go out of our ways to figure out what’s right for us and to plan our Customer Success careers ourselves.
Once you’ve thought about a career path, then what?
Then, you identify skills you’ll need, you enlist the help of your Manager, and you figure out how to work towards it. As a Manager, you also need to know how to respond to your employees defining their paths, almost any organization would value its employees taking initiative this way because employees being proactive about improving and growing within the organization will help the company improve, too. Managers identify the employees that didn’t just point out this lack of career map, but who instead made the effort of mapping it themselves, and they will help those who are seeking assistance in accomplishing their plans.
When you were going through this yourself, were you able to find mentoring from managers or co-workers?
No, when I got into Customer Success, the field was still at an early stage. At the time, there wasn’t a strong network of people, and I never had a mentor figure, which was always a challenge. I usually gave more in terms of mentorship, coaching, and leadership to my team than I ever received because I was acquiring skills and expertise on my own, outside of the organization.
When I became Director, I finally got introduced to an organization that ran monthly dinners with Customer Success Leaders. This was one of the most rewarding experiences, knowing that Customer Success Leaders from the top SaaS companies in Silicon Valley were facing the same things as me, and knowing that we could relate to one another. The challenges were the same, the scale was different, of course, but I got a lot of value from being part of a community.
So, how do you deal with these obstacles?
It’s important for both individuals and organizations to realize that these obstacles stand in the way of career development, and the value of taking a step back and planning is incommensurable when it comes to keeping your employees happy and to making sure you, as an individual, know where you are going.
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