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What Makes A Customer Success Team Effective? We Asked The Experts

Written by Rob Boone

Published on November 19, 2014

Customer Success Managers (CSMs) are in a unique position. On one hand, customer success has always been a key tenet of building a successful business. On the other, the concept of dedicating an employee, or an entire team, specifically to cultivating customer success is still a relatively new concept.

All that adds up to a discipline that’s just getting off the ground. We don’t have shelves of books filled with the collective knowledge of old superstars to turn to like the sales or management teams do--yet.

With that in mind, we set out to find what it is that makes stellar CSMs successful in their field. (In case you missed it, you may also want to read our interview with Get Satisfaction CSM Tashina Combs). We spoke to three exemplary CSM team leaders; Maheen Memon, Technical Account Manager (TAM) at Nulogy; Jay Keenan, Client Success Manager (CSM) at Innography; and Dana Lacey, Client Success Manager (CSM) at ScribbleLive, about their definitions of success as a CSM.

Here are the fundamental building blocks they recommend on which to build to a successful CSM department.

Set Expectations

When we asked Maheen about her greatest challenge as a CSM, the “newness” of her role immediately came into play. “I would have to say the biggest challenge I face day-to-day working as a TAM is being able to convey the nature of my role to new customers,” she said.

Obviously, speaking to customers is very first in a long list of duties tasked to a CSM. A stumbling block that presents itself so early in the game may seem like something that can be easily bypassed, but each CSM suggested this this first conversation with a customer is crucial.

When Jay meets new clients, he’s very clear about what the rest of the CSM/ client relationship will entail.

“When I initially met them, I explained my role as ‘Hey, you’re gonna hear from me on a regular basis. I’m gonna talk to you about new products. I’m gonna help train you I’ll contact you when our company does various webinars.”

The last thing any client wants is to be surprised. By laying out precisely what the nature of your role entails, you eliminate the possibility of surprise and lay the groundwork for a smooth professional relationship.

Maheen expands on the benefits of that initial conversation. “When you actually have the conversation with the client upfront, they get an understanding: ‘Oh, if there’s anything I need, I can reach out to you.’ I may get questions and find out ‘Hey, this is outside of my realm, but I will direct you to someone internally that can answer it for you.’

By setting expectations upfront, you position yourself as the single point of contact for all future interaction.

Do Your Research

Once the client understands that you’re their point of entry, you can move on to understanding their business, Dana explains.

“I want to spend a lot of time researching and understanding, and I think very much taking [from] my journalism experience. You wouldn’t want to call me up and not know what my job title is and what my role is generally,” Dana said.

Maheen expands on that thought. What makes a CSM truly successful, she said, is “the desire to really hone in on your customer’s needs and work with them to understand their business inside out. At Nulogy, we serve a segment of the supply chain industry that presents complex problems for us to solve and provider solutions for. A successful TAM is someone who can navigate through the intricacies of those complex problems and uncover solutions to remedy their pain points.”

Setting expectations and doing your research are simply parts of a much larger goal: to establish yourself not just as the CSM of your company, but as a trusted business advisor in all respects.

“We position ourselves as true partners and an extension of their own business, and that difference between being a provider and a partner is TAM,” Maheen said.

To establish himself in that role, Jay positions himself as an industry insider. “The biggest thing is you want to make good use of the time of the customer, where you’re seen as the person bringing them industry information, best practices, providing reporting numbers that they can share with their management team.” In short, you want to make your customer look good.

Jay: “If you are seen by the customer as somebody who, every time you interact with them, is bringing them good information to help them do their job in a better fashion, you’re gonna have easy access to the customer. I kind of gear everything towards that.”

Establishing yourself as an industry expert, as a client’s go-to for any and all things related to the field, leads to the key to successful CSM/ customer relations: trust. Trust, in turn, leads to the second phase of the CSM/ client relationship: friendship.

Maheen: “My favorite part of my job is akin to our company motto: ‘It’s not just business, it’s personal.’ I can call [customers] to do everything from walking through a business problem to finding out how their recent vacation went.”

“It kind of ties into products that we help our customers create. The clients want to be treated in a way for you to really understand their business 101. And by building touchpoints, which are regular check-ins and having conversations on how to grow their business with our actual software, that’s where that trust level gets built.”

That trust leads not just to great customer relationships—and great workdays, by extension—but to better opportunities. “Through building that trust and understanding the competencies of their business… the results come. I never have to ask for opportunities to pop up on my plate. They often come to me just because I’ve built that relationship 101 level,” Maheen said.

Build Trust Internally

By now, you’ve set your client’s expectations, done your research, and established yourself as a trusted advisor. But CSMs don’t spend all day with clients; we’re only one member of the entire company. For a customer to truly see us as the face of the company, to make sure we’re the one and only phone call they need to make, we have to work well within our team.

Maheen mentioned that “once customers are onboarded, they gain an understanding that they can call her for anything they need within the company. “Day-to-day, I manage those queries I get in through understanding if it’s something I can take care of, or if there’s someone else on my team that is better suited to answer it.”

To pass those queries on, though, requires a trust not only between the customer and the CSM, but between the CSM and other team members. That trust is crucial, too, when it comes time to delegate.

Dana explains. “I know the CSMs I work with, they tend to be perfectionists; we want to solve everything all the time. And sometimes it’s just a matter of letting things drop a bit and letting other team members work with your client and trusting the team to do a good job with them. So I think having important, open communication to talk about what your client needs are means I can now trust that I can send my client over to my training team, and they’re doing a good job with them and will tell me how it went, and I don’t have to be there for that.”

Be The Quarterback

Maheen likens CSMs to quarterbacks: “A TAM is essentially the quarterback, although only one part of the team effort that defines customer success. As the quarterbacks, we do everything that is needed to ensure the customer can rely on us to help them reach their goals in an entirely frictionless way.”

This is how successful CSMs turn relationship-building into actual results.

Jay: “CSMs are the voice of the customer, so the nature of the job is to work on behalf of the customer and that often involves interacting with just about all areas of the company: sales, engineering, product management, finance, accounting, etc. CSMs are actively involved in telling the company story and getting the customer to see the big picture.”

Jay: “I want it to be a formality when it comes time for the renewal process, whether it be a year out, two, three years out. Yes, they’ve engaged with us, we’re actively involved. We have an idea of where we’re headed. It really eliminates the risk that they’re starting to look at other vendors because they’re not happy with our service. You wanna take that off the table. And a lot of that goes to building a relationship in regular touchpoints. People buy from two types of people: experts and their friends. We wanna be an expert in our field and building that personal relationship never hurts.”

Final Thoughts

Fundamentals are crucial to success. When a football team, a violinist, or a radio announcer are in a slump, they often “get back to the fundamentals.” That is, they return to the basic principles and techniques that made them successful in the first place.

These are your fundamentals: set expectations, do your research, build trust internally, and be the quarterback.

Think of them as your CSM mission statement. Just as some CEOs carry their mission statement in their pocket at all times—so that when they’re approached with a new business opportunity, they pull out their mission statement to remind themselves of what they’re trying to accomplish—CSMs can use these principles as their guide. 

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