What Is a Customer Success Manager? What Does a CSM Do?
During lunch breaks, Shana LeNeveu likes to squeeze in a quick trail run before her afternoon meetings. As an ultra runner, she enjoys running longer distances too.
“I love endurance,” LeNeveu told Built In, “and that parallels very much with this position.”
LeNeveu’s position? Customer success manager. A role, she said, that’s about building relationships over time: “The salesperson gets more of that sprint. They get that sale, and it’s a high, and then they move onto the next prospect,” she said. But for customer success managers, “you’re in it for the long haul, the long relationship.”
What Do Customer Success Managers Do?
A customer success manager (CSM) wears several hats and collaborates with several departments. We talked with customer success professionals — Shana LeNeveu, senior customer success manager at Swimlane; Shani Taylor, manager, customer success at Airtable; and Diana Hsiao, customer success manager at Lattice — to get a sense of the job, and what it takes to succeed. Their responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
A Day in the Life of a Customer Success Manager
A customer success manager enters the picture once a sale is closed, and stays with the customer through the duration of their business with the company.
Lead Kickoff Calls
The first thing a CSM does is onboard the new customer. This usually begins with an introductory meeting, or kickoff call. The CSM works with the customer to set goals and expectations, and begins educating them about the product.
Shana LeNeveu, Swimlane: We discuss the customer’s goals and their specific definition of success within the software platform. It’s a great opportunity for me to explain what the customer journey will look like and what they should expect over the first year. I always ask the customer two things about communication — how they prefer to communicate, and how often.
Educate Customers Through the Onboarding
The CSM teaches the customer about the product and answers any questions that come up, typically over calls, emails and screen-sharing demos. During the onboarding phase, which may last several weeks, the frequency of communication between the CSM and customer is usually very high. The goal is for the customer to see the value of their purchase as quickly as possible.
Shani Taylor, Airtable: It might even be a weekly cadence early on, just to get customers up and running. We want to shorten that time to value. It’s important to front-load that relationship, so that they’re fully equipped and understanding the product — but also getting the training and the foundation set for them to feel comfortable in the relationship in the long term.
Engage Continuously to Ensure Value
The CSM maintains regular communication with customers, checking in on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis (the exact cadence depends on the customer). The CSM may give strategic advice on how the customer can better utilize the product, help troubleshoot problems and discuss feature requests. (Customers often make requests for the product to better suit their specific needs.) CSMs may also upsell and cross-sell products to customers.
Shana LeNeveu, Swimlane: A lot of times, a customer is really interested in particular feature requests or integration requests that would make their everyday lives easier with our platform. They may want to get a real thorough understanding of what our product roadmap looks like.
Shani Taylor, Airtable: Coupling what we know about the customer’s business priorities with their usage data, we create customized plans for engagement. Maybe that is a conversation about new priorities that the customers have, which we can help partner with them on. Or maybe it’s a sequence of email communications that highlight our newest features that they could benefit from. They might also ask how others are using it; customers like to know that they’re essentially using Airtable in the right way.
Diana Hsiao, Lattice: If I’m seeing that customers haven’t really utilized one of our features, I want to be able to check in with them, see why, and offer recommendations or resources. Sometimes, you have more of those casual conversations too, unrelated to the product. Ultimately, that will help us build a better relationship with customers, and it might reveal a problem that our product could actually support. For example, I had a customer who was venting to me about having a tough time reaching out to her employees. She wanted to find out more about how they were feeling because of COVID-19. I said, “Hey, you know Lattice has an engagement survey.” And she said, “Wow, I didn’t think of that.”
CSMs often meet regularly with their teammates and team leads to discuss best practices and how to overcome specific challenges. CSMs also work internally with other departments, such as product management and sales. Part of the CSM’s job is to report customer feedback to other teams so that those insights can be used to improve the company’s product.
Diana Hsiao, Lattice: I would say we mostly work with the product team, to give feedback from our customers. The product team is consistently asking us for feedback and if there are any bugs that come up. We also work really closely with sales and marketing, because a lot of what we learn can be shared mutually and utilized to help everyone. We work with our billing and finance team, because we’re the ones who handle renewals. And we work closely with our customer care team, to really have an understanding of what the customer’s experience is like.
Customer Success Is Different From Customer Support
Their names are similar, but their functions are different. Typically, customer support provides quick and technical help relating to the product (think posing a question to a chatbot or an 800-number representative). While customer success does do some troubleshooting, it is usually in the context of broader, long-term goals.
Shani Taylor, Airtable: Our customer support teams know the ins and outs of how to use Airtable and how it functions. If our customer runs into a bug or an issue in the product and it needs troubleshooting, that’s great for customer support. Customer success is much more of a strategic engagement, where we want to be thoughtful about how to think about the big picture and how we’re supposed to fit within our customer’s organization.
Customer Success Is Not Sales
While the CSM’s job may involve cross-selling and upselling, many companies do not consider it a sales role. The CSM focuses on selling the value of the product to the customer.
Diana Hsiao, Lattice: A part of being a CSM is being able to teach yourself the value of the product. And then once you understand the value, it doesn’t really feel like you’re selling something. It feels like you’re just trying to explain the value of the product, and how you’ve seen it used successfully by other customers. There’s a little bit of sales behavior that you take on within yourself, but I don’t personally feel like it’s very salesy.
CSMs Get Measured on Retention and Product Activity
Customer success managers are successful if they get renewals and create loyal customers. Failure to do so is called churn. CSMs are also often evaluated on whether customers actively use the product and are willing to advocate for it (through referrals and case studies).
Shana LeNeveu, Swimlane: We’re measured on retention, but that’s more of a lagging indicator of how we’re doing. Some of the leading indicators we’re measured on are reduction in time to value (when our customers start seeing value with our software). We’re measuring that very carefully. Another leading indicator is if the company is willing to be a reference — that’s a big indicator.
The Qualities of a Customer Success Manager
While a range of personalities can thrive in a customer success role, CSMs are often relationship builders, empathetic listeners, curious about products and proactive.
As the name suggests, customer success managers work closely with customers. They answer lots of calls and emails, and learn the customer’s priorities and pain points so they can help them get value from the product. CSMs collaborate with fellow team members and several other departments, too, so being relationship-savvy is definitely part of the job.
Diana Hsiao, Lattice: It’s also being able to build relationships with your teammates, with your manager and other departments. It’s not always like a solo adventure type of thing. You need your teammates to be successful.
Customer success managers may not be dialing the phone as much as salespeople. But their job isn’t to simply wait for customers to call them. On the contrary, CSMs take a proactive posture. Setting meetings and continuously reaching out to customers to give them updates and recommendations is central to the role.
Shana LeNeveu, Swimlane: I try to be as proactive as possible. That doesn’t always work — this job is full of surprises, and you have to shift your priorities, and in those cases, being reactive is really important — but the goal of trying to stay proactive is my focus every week. Nothing feels worse than when a customer has been silently frustrated for a while about issues you didn’t know about.
Empathy and listening is a key quality possessed by successful CSMs. It allows them to see the frustrations and aspirations of the customer, leading to a fuller understanding of where the customer is coming from — and what they need.
Diana Hsiao, Lattice: When a customer is reaching out to you, they need something — they’re running into some sort of issue. Before you tackle what that is, it’s important to take the time to listen and truly understand what the customer is asking. That will allow you to feel more empowered to give the right response, whether that’s something you could provide in the moment or later on after some research.
CSMs have a deep knowledge about the products their companies offer (and a strong sense of curiosity to match). They are able to explain the value of the purchase and demonstrate how the customer can use it effectively.
Shani Taylor, Airtable: It’s important to have product knowledge and be really curious about the product. A lot of the value that we’re able to deliver to our customers is really showing them how our product is a great thing. When our customers see our CSM team as product experts, it increases their confidence and understanding that this is actually going to be a great solution for them.