7 Tips From the C-Suite for Future Customer Success Leaders

Customer success is an exciting, young field with a lot of potential for career growth for people who want to pursue it. These tips will help you to launch your CS journey.

Written by Abby Hammer
Published on May. 31, 2023
7 Tips From the C-Suite for Future Customer Success Leaders
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Acquiring a new customer is five to 25 times more expensive than keeping a current customer. Modest improvements to retention rates — even a single percentage point — can have an outsized impact on company valuation. Yet, despite these staggering facts, most businesses still don’t have a chief customer officer.

For young leaders, this absence is a huge opportunity — but how do you navigate the path to the C-suite?

As chief customer officer at ChurnZero, my role is to bring value to customers so they stay and grow with us. I'm the person who both asks and answers: What do our customers need to experience and gain to continue investing time, energy and money in our partnership? From the moment the ink dries on the contract through renewal and expansion, my teams are responsible for planning and bringing to life a customer journey that delivers clear benefits and measurable value. We’re the customer’s voice within ChurnZero, owning customer insights and evangelizing on their behalf throughout our organization to ensure that every decision starts with the customer as its central focus.

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My Path to Leadership

Like most career paths today, my route to the C-suite wasn’t linear. I entered customer success after college until, like many customer people, I became fixated on the product itself. I was so immersed in what customers wanted, why they wanted it, and what they were trying to accomplish that I formed ideas and then started getting vocal about things our products should do.

My company at the time knew and trusted me, giving me a shot at being in product development. Then, at my last company, I joined a task force dedicated to understanding our problem with customer churn. When members of that task force became fascinated with the challenge of customer retention and started ChurnZero, I joined as a leader in customer success and products.

It was an exciting time to enter the customer success space. Traditionally, companies viewed teams that supported customers as cost centers, not revenue centers. The growing dominance of the subscription-based economy was changing everything, however. Small changes in customer retention had an astronomical impact as they compounded over the years. New technology platforms like ours were giving customer success teams the same level of insight into user behavior and intent, operationalization and reporting that sales and marketing had enjoyed for years.

Customer success isn’t a “happiness team” anymore: It’s a revenue team — and career-wise, leading a revenue center tends to bring more opportunity than leading a cost center.

To young leaders eyeing a place in the C-suite through a customer success career, I can offer the following advice.

7 Tips From the C-Suite for Future Customer Success Leaders

  1. Customer success skews younger. Take advantage.
  2. Be aware of the flipside to point number 1.
  3. CS leadership is more than a people role.
  4. Get as much exposure to all the aspects of managing customers as you can.
  5. Unsure about a career opportunity? Gauge your excitement level.
  6. The top CS leaders pick their CEOs carefully.
  7. To make it into the C-suite, tie your work to dollars.

 

1. Customer Success Skews Younger. Take Advantage.

Lots of people have been doing some version of customer success for a long time.  The overall tenure of people in CS leadership roles is nothing like in sales or marketing, however. CS leaders skew younger because the discipline is younger. As a younger professional early in your career, you’ll find more opportunities for advancement because you won’t staring up at someone with 20 years of leadership experience that you can’t match.

 

2. Be Aware of the Flipside to Point Number 1.

Because CS is a younger discipline, its best practices aren’t firmly established. If you want to be a leader in this space, you can’t just come in and run a standard playbook. You’ll need to do your research on what’s worked at various organizations, then arrive prepared to experiment. You’ll need to be comfortable chasing your own ideas, trusting your understanding, and changing things if you don’t see the results you want.

In 10 years, we’ll end up with the same level of entrenched best practices as sales or marketing, but we’re not there yet. As a young leader, you’ll need some confidence in your abilities and the will to make an impact.

 

3. CS Leadership Is More Than a People Role.   

Being a good customer leader used to be primarily about human relationships: the emotional intelligence-driven aspects of customer work and people management on fast-growing teams.

Today, the best CS leaders come with something else, too: operational excellence. You might be the greatest at building relationships, but that won’t scale your operations. On the other hand, if all you can handle is the operations, you'll struggle with the leadership requirements of growing a good people department.

To become an impactful CS leader, you’ve got to do both. This role is becoming a hybrid one where you get to exercise the right and left sides of your brain pretty evenly.

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4. Get As Much Exposure to All the Aspects of Managing Customers As You Can.

At lower or middle levels of CS leadership, you’re going to focus on certain aspects of the job. You might manage a customer success team, lead CS operations, or oversee specialists delivering educational programs. If you’re interested in continuing to climb that CS ladder, however, you need as much exposure as you can get to every part of supporting a customer.

Our most impactful leaders tend to be well-rounded. After all, as a team member, you want to talk to a leader who you know understands what the heck it is you do. The further you go up the ladder, the more knowledge you’ll need about all potential subfields.

 

5. Unsure About a Career Opportunity? Gauge Your Excitement Level.

If you're joining a startup or smaller company to build your CS career, my recommendation to you is to be wildly excited about what they’re doing. That's what propels you through those first couple of years. If you don’t find the problem the company is solving cool and interesting, the problem is going to beat you.

I joined ChurnZero as employee number one. Things feel different when the entire company can fit in a four-person conference room. But it was also very exciting because I was so fascinated by the problem we were trying to solve. The need was real, and I was sure we’d have some degree of success if we could meet it.

 

6. The Top CS Leaders Pick Their CEOs Carefully.

Every company is in a different stage of customer success maturity, which means that a lot of CS leaders are still entering spaces where they still need to explain why CS matters.

The upper echelon of CS leaders avoids this problem by looking for CEOs who understand its importance. A CEO’s grasp of the potential of CS is a good early indication of how customer-centric an organization is and whether you’ll need to have those initial arguments.

For new CS leaders, the nascence of CS is often a double-whammy. You’re going to learn how to make pitches, stand up for what you need, and work cross-departmentally in a productive way. You’re also going to be doing it from an uncertain position because you’re a newer department still vying for its space in the organization. Look for a company that sets you up for success by believing in the impact your team can have.

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7. To Make It Into the C-Suite, Tie Your Work to Dollars.

At ChurnZero, our CS team owns renewals and expansion, which means I have a quota-carrying team just like our vice president of sales does. When I enter a conversation with needs or concerns, that quota gives them weight and relevance. It’s a business. Money talks, and money moves.

If your role only has a dotted line to the dollar, or a zigzag to the dollar, it’s harder to get a seat at the table. If you get to the C-suite without that direct tie to revenue, your thoughts, needs, and justifications are easier to deprioritize.

If you don’t own any revenue yet, consider the route that a lot of CS leaders have taken: Start small, prove value in a limited capacity, then use it as momentum to get the capabilities you need to own the dollars. I’ve seen people do it by asking for ownership of one segment of customers. Any time you're trying to get something you don't have, starting small, then building momentum and capitalizing on it is a great way to go to bat.

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