Apr 13, 2020

CSMs: Considering a horizontal move to progress your career? Read this first.

Chris Hicken By Chris Hicken
CEO at 'nuffsaid
customer-success-career-path

In recent years I’ve had a number of former colleagues and mentees ask whether Customer Success is a good career—and if so, how they can get to the next level in their company.

I’ll go into why I believe Success is a career worth betting on, but it’s helpful to first realize why we’re here. Why does the question of whether this is a good career come up more frequently in Success than in other functions? 

 

The crux of it is this: Customer Success owns less budget than other departments in most companies. Their budget tends to be 5-12% of the company’s revenue, whereas Sales or Marketing could easily spend 50%+ of the total revenue. As a result, the average Success department can only afford to pay people who are willing to make a salary somewhere between 75k on the lower end and 125k (according to Paysa) on the high end. 

 

Success orgs need to hire for potential and skill, not for experience. They need to find people who are ambitious and looking to grow their career. 

 

But as expected, ambitious CSMs will eventually cap out on what the company can pay them. The path forward isn’t clear. This leads them to wonder if they can build a great career in Success, or if they need to move horizontally to a different function. 

 

TLDR; Customer Success is trending upwards and I believe will continue on it's current trajectory for the next decade. With 3 existing paths for growth, ambitious CSMs can continue to pursue fulfilling, lucrative careers in the Success discipline.

Placing a bet on Success as a career path

When people pursue a career in Success, they’re placing a bet that the role and function of CS will continue to grow in prominence in the next 5 to 10 years. 

 

In the last 10 years, I’ve seen Success average salaries more than double. 

 

As the role grows in prominence, in other words, as companies realize the critical role that Success plays in the growth strategy of the company—and as Success leaders emerge as key strategic players in the enterprise—they’re going to be able to advocate for more budget for their teams. They’ll be able to pay people higher salaries overall. 

 

So that’s the first question people need to answer for themselves when considering this career: Do they believe this role is growing in prominence or not? If the answer is yes, we can then move on to some of the ways that Success people can grow their income and exposure within the company.  

How Success people can grow in their careers 

There are three overarching “moves” someone in Success can make to progress in their career.  

 

1. Grow the skills to manage bigger accounts

The lowest paid CSMs are those that do the most transactional work. If they’re managing SMBs, they’re going to make less money than if they were managing large accounts. 

 

The path forward is to develop the skills needed to manage those larger accounts. People in this situation can: 

  • Get a thorough understanding of how customers are using the product. Identify patterns. Be able to talk to customers about how other companies of similar size or industry are using the product. 
  • Learn how to speak about the product to different audiences within the same company. Understand what the message and action items for each type of meeting are. 
  • Practice prioritizing time by customer size and renewal dates.
  • Keep a pulse on how customers are experiencing the product
  • Understand your customer’s goals, and then practice connecting your product to those goals.

 

2. Focus on the "solutions consultant" or "solutions architect" roles

A Solution Consultant is the person who deeply understands the industry, the product, and the different verticals of customers. They can talk at a strategic level not just about the company’s product, but the problems in the overall space—including the processes and best practices that other companies are implementing. 

 

Then, they can explain how potential new customers can transform their current processes into more of a best in class process and explain where their company’s product fits. 

 

For the CSM who wants to become a prominent individual contributor, the Solutions Consultant role can be a very flexible and high-paying path. 

 

3. Get into management

The third way to progress in Success is to get into management. 

 

For CSMs becoming managers

In a lot of fields—like Sales or Engineering—the saying is “the best individual contributors don’t make the best managers.” That’s not true in Success: the best CSMs often do make the best managers. The best CSMs are helpful, patient, and have a coaching mindset. They spend their days teaching people how to implement best practices. 

 

To start testing whether management is a good next step, CSMs can:  

  • Train new hires. When new hires come on, the CSM can oversee their training and help the new hires get ramped up. Part of the idea here is for the CSM to practice coaching and transferring skills. 
  • Set direction for the team. The CSM can become an assistant manager to one of the existing managers, just to test how they do at running meetings and setting direction for the team. 

If they perform well across those areas, they should be next in line for a management position. 

 

For managers or team leads becoming directors

A director role is less about great performance as an individual contributor and more about the ability to set large team goals and develop processes from scratch. They need to be very metrics and data-oriented. 

 

Directors also need to be able to put systems in place that keep them informed about what’s going on at the front lines, so they don’t become disconnected from the CSMs and the customers. This might look like blocking off time every week to listen to customer calls or taking time to read through qualitative data.